Hamas Leaders Meet with Russian Government
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Leaders of Hamas have begun talks with Russian officials in Moscow. It's the groups first official discussions with a major power, which is also a Middle East peace mediator. The Kremlin says it will press the Palestinian militant group to soften it's stance toward Israel. But the political leader of Hamas says there are no to recognize the Jewish state. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.
GREGORY FEIFER, Reporting:
President Vladamir Putin surprised Western countries last month by inviting a Hamas delegation to Moscow for discussions about the organization's future. The offer came shortly after the Islamists group's sweeping victory in Palestinian Parliamentary Polls last January. A shocked Israeli minister accused Moscow of stabbing Israel in the back. Hamas has staged suicide attacks and is formally dedicated to destroying the Jewish state. But announcing the talks on television he said he was partly motivated by respect for the will of the Palestinian people.
President VLADAMIR PUTIN, Russia: (Speaking Russian)
FEIFER: It's necessary to admit, he said, today that Hamas came to power in the Palestinian authority through legitimate democratic elections.
Russia is a member of the quartet of Middle East mediators, along with the United States, United Nations, and European Union. Moscow is the only member of the quartet that doesn't consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Putin said ostracizing the group would hurt peace efforts.
PUTIN: (Speaking Russian)
FEIFER: Burning bridges, especially in politics, is the easiest thing to do, he said, but it's not very productive.
Hamas is struggling to put together a government as Washington and other donors threaten to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid unless the group renounces violence and recognizes Israeli statehood. Moscow says it will pressure Hamas on both accounts. But historian Richard Pipes says negotiating with Hamas is unwise.
RICHARD PIPES, historian: I think it's very wrong, on the part of Moscow, to treat Hamas as an equal partner in world affairs. I mean, it's a terrorist organization that's been (unintelligible) by the United States, by Europe and so on.
FEIFER: Pipes says Russia is acting as a spoiler in foreign affairs. He says Moscow's actions reflect a historical inability to find a place in the international community.
PIPES: There's a very popular theory in Russia now, this actually goes back to the 1920's, Russia is neither Europe nor Asia but is Eurasia, some point between. But as it is they don't belong to either.
FEIFER: Sarah Mendelson of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies says she's concerned by Russia's attempt to influence foreign affairs when it's ignoring at home many of the same problems found in the Middle East. Moscow refuses to negotiate with Muslim rebels in war torn Chechnya, from which violence is spilling into the country's poverty stricken North Caucuses Region. Muslims there complain of harassment by law enforcers. Dr. Mendelson.
SARAH MENDELSON (Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies ): I wish that they'd be trying to figure out what has Hamas done to provide social provision, and to really focus Russian energy on the conditions in the North Caucuses and trying to improve them, before there's increased extremism.
FEIFER: Historian Pipes says Russia may want to position itself more as a more permanent mediator between Hamas and the West. But many experts say this time the two sides will do more than get to know each other.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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