Russia, Hamas and the United States

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Russia's decision to grant the Palestinian Authority financial aid stands at odds with a U.S. decision to clamp down on any organizations that have financial ties to the Hamas-led government. What happens now?

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This weekend Russia pledged emergency financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, now led by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Moscow's decision represents its latest break with fellow Middle East mediators in the West who've blocked aid funding to the Palestinians since Hamas took over the government.

NPR's Gregory Feifer joins us from Moscow.

Greg, why is Russia helping the Palestinians?

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Well, Moscow has criticized the decision by Washington and the European Union to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won a landslide in parliamentary elections last January.

Western countries are concerned by Hamas' refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israeli statehood. But this week, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said the Palestinian elections were democratic. He said that the only way to get Hamas to meet international demands was to work with it.

But I think Moscow's position is also part of a larger foreign policy effort to take an increasingly independent and assertive line. The Kremlin has become very angry over what it sees as an American-led effort to influence world politics. You really feel that in the corridors of power here. And I think that's especially true of Russia's backyard, in the former Soviet subject-states of Georgia and Ukraine, where public protests recently helped install pro-Western leaders there.

I think that really got under the Kremlin's skin, and these are the results. They're trying to show their displeasure.

LYDEN: Moscow held a lot of influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. Is Russia trying to regain its position there, is that what you're saying?

FEIFER: That's right. The Soviet Union was an important backer of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, and Syria, and other countries seen as antagonistic to Washington at the time. Russia is now posing as mediator, as what it says is a balance to the White House, in increasingly unstable times. In March, Moscow really surprised the West by becoming the only major power to invite Hamas to Russia for talks. And I think yesterday's announcement about aid to the Islamist group is just the latest move along those lines.

LYDEN: Moscow says that it's fighting a war in Chechnya against international terrorism, speaking of backyards. Does help for Hamas say anything about Russia's position on Islamist terrorist groups?

FEIFER: I think it shows Moscow's position is very complicated, if not completely muddled. After September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call President George Bush and offer his support. Moscow said it was a major partner in the fight against terrorism. But many here saw that position partly as a way to avoid criticism of Moscow's brutal war in Chechnya. As under the Soviet Union, I think we see that Moscow's attitude to foreign militant groups can be much more friendly.

LYDEN: How much are the Russians promising to give to Palestinians?

FEIFER: That's not entirely clear. The Foreign Ministry made a statement, which is a very short one, about the promised aid on its web site. It said the offer came during a telephone conversation on Friday between Foreign Minister Lov Rolfe(ph) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But the statement made no mention of the amount of aid. And some believe that the figure will probably be negligible. If that's true, this would likely be a symbolic move, which would underscore the view that the offer is really more about Russia's opposition to western policies than real help to the Palestinian Authority.

LYDEN: Russia is a member of the Quartet of Middle East Mediators, along with Washington, the European Union and the United Nations. How have they reacted to this overture to Hamas?

FEIFER: Surprised, mainly, I think. As I said, the other members of the Quartet were taken aback, really, by Russia's invitation to Hamas last month. Washington, in the end, said it was positive about Moscow's attempts to what it said was, that it had pressured Hamas to accept the Quartet's demands. But I think the response to yesterday's news about aid will be surprise again. I think Moscow's decision really reflects Russia's growing anger, as I said, at the West. And it appears the Kremlin is pushing for some kind of debate, if not outright confrontation about this issue.

LYDEN: NPR's Gregory Feifer in Moscow. Thank you very much, Greg.

FEIFER: You're welcome.

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