Moscow thinks the key to peace can be found in Damascus

The peace process in the region will from now on follow two competitive paths - American and Russian.

Assad plastered 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad plastered 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
A week ago President Vladimir Putin sent Yevgeni Primakov to Damascus post-haste for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Primakov, former Russian prime minister and KGB master, is no newcomer to discreet meetings with Middle Eastern leaders. Shortly after Menachem Begin became prime minister, at a time when our relations with the Soviet Union were as frozen as the arctic ice, he came to Jerusalem and astounded Begin with an offer to restore diplomatic relations immediately and to reopen the Soviet Embassy in Ramat Gan. There was, however, a price tag to the offer: negotiations for peace with the PLO, which, in 1977, was a non-starter as far as Begin was concerned. So what was Primakov offering Damascus last week? Presumably his visit had a lot to do with Russia's desire to host a conference in Moscow, parallel to Annapolis but with the emphasis on peace between Syria and Israel, instead of dealing with the Palestinians. Moscow is convinced that the key to peace in the Middle East can be found in Damascus. In 1977, Primakov believed that a breakthrough was possible - with Soviet help - in relations between Israel and the Palestinians; in 2007 the Russians are certain that peace can be achieved, with their help, between Damascus and Jerusalem. Primakov's visit to Damascus must, however, be understood in a wider context. President Putin is flexing his muscles. He does not want Washington to call all the shots in the Middle East. Don't leave us on the sidelines, he is saying; we have some shots of our own, witness his visit to Iran last month, and now Primakov's to Damascus. Activism in the Middle East is one more expression of the restored status of Russia as a world power, one of Putin's principal achievements in the eyes of the majority of Russians. The influential Russian newspaper Kommersant had this to say on November 7 on Primakov's visit: The Kremlin wants to take the initiative from Washington and to restore its lost influence in the Middle East. The peace process in the region will from now on follow two competitive paths - American and Russian. I visited Moscow last week after an absence of two years. I could hardly believe my eyes. In two years, Moscow has made enormous strides, becoming the most dynamic city in Europe. High-rise buildings have sprung up everywhere. The old, ramshackle Intourist hotel near the Kremlin has been miraculously transformed into a glittering five star Ritz Carlton. The Soviet style Hotel Moskva opposite the Duma is boarded up, on the way to becoming a modern, expensive abode for those who can afford to pay $600 or more per night, which is what some of the hotels in Moscow are now demanding. I have not seen restaurants anywhere in Europe that can compare with some of the eateries in Moscow, in décor, food - and high prices! Yet Moscow is a city confused. There was a time, during the Yeltsin period, when chaos reigned and the country was widely believed to be unmanageable. Then along came Putin, who proved to be a strong leader true to the tradition of Russian history, from Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible right down to Stalin. Order was restored. Stability was achieved. The country became manageable again. Moreover, with oil and gas prices rocketing the economy flourished. Money was coming out of the ears of those who could afford those expensive restaurants mentioned before. When this year's state budget was planned it was based on the highly optimistic estimate of $50 per barrel. With oil prices touching on $100 per barrel, the Russian economy has become flooded with cash. In the eyes of the people, Putin is the man who has done it all - Russia recognized once more as a Great Power, Russia controlled, manageable and stable, Russia with an ebullient economy, Russia with a strong leader - no wonder that the all powerful president is so popular. Yet that leader is about to step down. His second term expires in May. The constitution does not permit a third, and no one, from the president down, has any inkling what will happen. Ask 10 people in Moscow and you will get 10 different answers. There are those who are convinced that at the beginning of next year, after the elections for Parliament - the Duma - the members will vote for a change in the constitution that will enable Putin to stand for a third term. There would be no problem in obtaining the 75 percent of the Duma needed for the change; Putin's party will win by a landslide, and the Communists will also vote for it, and between the two parties there will be more than enough votes. Then there are others that believe that Putin will choose a weak and passive person as his successor and will continue to pull the strings. That person might, after a few months, declare himself unwell and resign, leaving the way open for Putin to return to the presidency without having to change the constitution. These are only two of the theories flying around in Moscow. A noted political analyst wrote in a recent article in the Moscow Times: "It is already clear that a third term is probably unavoidable, regardless of what Putin's future job title might be after May." Putin's popularity belies the fact that democracy is on the wane in Russia. The media is controlled. The Duma may end up with only two parties - Putin's United Russia and the Communists - as the benchmark has been raised to 7% and the smaller parties will find it difficult to pass that hurdle. Former KGB officers have been installed in all major industries and organizations and maintain an iron control (the KGB, now known as the FSB, prides itself that there is no such thing as a 'former' KGB officer). There is no real electioneering for the upcoming vote, no open debates between candidates. All this, however, is considered secondary to the need to have a strong leader, and Putin fits the bill. This is especially the case with the US and the West being increasingly depicted as the enemy. The growing antipathy to the US does not seem to affect attitudes to Israel. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Moscow recently, the coverage in the press was very friendly, different from descriptions of many other visitors. "You have so many Russians in Israel that we see you almost like one of the ex-Soviet Republics," one of my interlocutors told me. The fact that Israel is considering abolishing the need for visas for Russian citizens has been widely reported in the press. "It is a brilliant move. You will be flooded by Russian tourists," I was told. Russians have seen East European countries that have joined the EU, such as Hungary, where until now they could enter without visas, bend to EU demands and impose visa restrictions. Russia can be expected to become much more active in the Middle East, and this need not necessarily be detrimental for Israel. A senior EU official told me recently that Putin had some very harsh things to say to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during his visit to Teheran. We must, however, take Russia more seriously and invest more in strengthening relations with Moscow. Olmert's recent visit was a step in the right direction. Russia has once more become a world power, a major player on the world's chessboard. We must treat it accordingly. The writer, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, is publisher of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.