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Once Diplomat's Diplomat, Lavrov Now Kremlin's Advance Guard

  • Daisy Sindelar

Which Sergei Lavrov will arrive in New York?

Fireworks are expected between Russia and the West as the UN General Assembly's annual high-level debate continues. Many eyes will be on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who in recent months has traded in his role as a quiet, low-key diplomat and adopted a more aggressive, uncompromising stance.

Lavrov was scheduled to hold some 50 bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Of those, the most difficult was expected to be that with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The meeting comes at a low point in Russian-U.S. relations, and just a week after Rice accused Russia of continuing a pattern of aggressive behavior with its August invasion of Georgia during the conflict over South Ossetia.

Lavrov, who outlined Moscow's foreign-policy views in an annual speech on September 1, prefers to see Washington as the aggressor. "The [U.S.] attempt to live in its own unipolar world has continued for much too long," he said.

"This is a condition that is too dangerous for everyone, and we see its manifestations in anti-Russian provocations, including Tbilisi's aggression against South Ossetia," Lavrov continued. "I'm convinced that the discredited practice of supporting client states and vassal regimes must not come back to life."

The talks between Rice and Lavrov were to focus on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, but Rice's spokesman said she would raise the issue of the events in Georgia.

The United Nations showed where its sympathies on the issue lie by inviting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to be among the handful of leaders to speak during the debate's September 22 opening session.

But Russia is unlikely to be affected by such slights. Moscow has already pulled out of UN talks this week on fresh sanctions against Iran. Russia -- with Lavrov the primary message-bearer -- appears determined to demonstrate to the nearly 200 countries gathered that it plans to play a dominant and unyielding role in world affairs.

Sophisticated Diplomat...

In the Vladimir Putin era of Kremlin hard men, the 58-year-old Lavrov has often been seen as a breed apart -- a tall, sophisticated career diplomat who has used intelligence and reasoning, rather than brutish rhetoric, to press Russia's foreign-policy agenda.

Lavrov, who graduated from Moscow's prestigious State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1972, began his career in the Soviet diplomatic services with a posting to Sri Lanka.

From there, he moved to various posts within the Soviets' UN delegation and the Foreign Ministry. In 1994, he was appointed Russia's ambassador to the UN. It was there that he first became a familiar face in international policy circles.

A commanding presence with fluent English, French, and Sinhalese (one of Sri Lanka's languages), Lavrov was one of the most powerful voices at the UN opposing U.S. plans to enter Iraq over suspicions that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.

In a February 2003 address -- one month before the U.S. proceeded with the invasion -- Lavrov once again made the case that inspections were a preferable option to military action.

"We don't think that the chance for peaceful disarmament of Iraq has been lost or has been missed," he said. "We are convinced, on the contrary, that inspections are proceeding effectively and that Iraq is responding to the demands of [the] international community and the pressure exerted on it."

At the time, Lavrov argued that war was not an "adequate tool" for dealing with the Iraq issue.

...To Kremlin Point Man

But five years later, Lavrov -- whom Putin appointed foreign minister in 2004 -- was among the first to defend Russia's war in Georgia as the only adequate tool for dealing with Tbilisi's aggression against its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Lavrov was a frequent visitor to Georgia's breakaway territories in the days that followed the fighting. He drew parallels between Moscow's recognition of the territories' independence and the West's embrace of Kosovo's self-declared independence earlier this year -- a move that infuriated the Kremlin.

"For us, the recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was dictated equally by the legal, moral, but also pragmatic considerations, most of all of ensuring effectively the security of these nations," Lavrov said in his September 1 speech. "We can no longer allow ourselves, as we did in the past, simply to wait for the beginning of another blitzkrieg by Tbilisi against South Ossetia or Abkhazia."

The fallout of the Georgia crisis has provided Lavrov with numerous opportunities to lash out against Moscow's regular bugbears.

In everything from NATO expansion to U.S. missile defense and collective security, Lavrov has represented his resurgent country with uncompromising, at times combative, rhetoric.

Many familiar with the polished and reserved side of Lavrov, therefore, were shocked to read the Russian foreign minister had apparently directed a coarse English expletive at British Foreign Secretary David Miliband during an agitated phone conversation over Georgia.

The gesture was more in keeping with the rough language frequently deployed by Putin, but struck many as being surprisingly undiplomatic for a man like Lavrov. The Russian foreign minister later acknowledged that he had used the expletive, but that it had been in reference to Mikheil Saakashvili, not Miliband.

Lavrov has also become the face of Kremlin diplomacy in its "near abroad," the CIS republics where Moscow would like to reestablish its Soviet-era influence.

"For us, the CIS is not a chessboard for playing geopolitical games. It is a common civilization space that preserves the historic and spiritual inheritance of all the nations living here," Lavrov said on September 1.

"Our geography and economic interdependence give all CIS countries tangible competitive advantages and the integration imperatives of globalization make themselves no less prominent here than in other regions of the world. The most important thing is that nobody should get in our way by creating artificial obstacles for the sake of their selfish interests."

People will be watching to see what tone Lavrov strikes on September 27, when he is due to address the General Assembly. His speech is expected to make the case for Moscow's proposed new collective security treaty -- one in which European governments would act as independent states rather than as a bloc.

Lavrov, who has shown little distress over scaled-down ties between Russia and NATO, is likely to give a convincing performance.

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