Russia basks in rare success

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Russia's mediation in the Iraq crisis has given Moscow new hope that it is still a powerful force on the international stage.

It was a triumph for a nation that has long felt neglected in the wake of its lost empire. It was a foreign victory abroad for a President grappling with a scandal at home. And it was a vintage performance in the negotiating career of a wily former Soviet spymaster.

The deal, brokered by the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in talks with Iraq's Tariq Aziz, was widely seen both as a reminder to the world that Russia still merits a place at the top table, despite Nato expansion and the post-Cold War ascendancy of the United States.

Yesterday, as Mr Primakov set off to tour Latin America, the Kremlin had the rare pleasure of basking in the glow of international approval.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said diplomats noted his mediation "with appreciation". The French President, Jacques Chirac, scrawled "Bravo For Primakov" on a congratulatory note to Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Primakov's success was the fruit of a relationship with Iraq which has deep roots. Russia's interests in the region includes multi-billion dollar oil and gas development deals. The 68-year-old minister, who speaks Arabic, has personal ties with Saddam Hussein with whom he negotiated, albeit in vain, during the 1991 Gulf War.

For President Yeltsin, the deal was a welcome addition to his efforts to establish his credentials as a world statesman, an ambition reflected by his endless round of meetings with other leaders this year. It is also a distraction from a corruption scandal over his close adviser, Anatoly Chubais.

Above all, it was a day in the sun for Mr Primakov, a veteran Middle East hand who worked in the region as a Pravda journalist and Soviet diplomat. The former head of Russia's foreign intelligence service will feel he has shown Moscow still holds the key to some international relationships and that the US-run "unipolar" world (a constant complaint) has not yet arrived.