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Russia: Nationalist Appointed NATO Ambassador

Dmitry Rogozin (file) (RFE/RL) The appointment of nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin as Russia's representative to NATO, coming at a time of strained ties between Moscow and the Western military alliance, has been cautiously welcomed by NATO officials.

The 44-year-old politician has aggressively championed the rights of ethnic Russians and organized several so-called Russian marches -- mass street demonstrations in which participants have brandished Nazi slogans and called for the expulsion of dark-skinned foreigners.

Rogozin is also known for his stinging criticism of the West and NATO. In 2006, he described the alliance with which he will now work as a "dying organization."

But in more than one way, his appointment by President Vladimir Putin on January 10 is in line with the Kremlin's interests. "This sends a signal to NATO that Russia is not at all pleased with NATO's actions, particularly concerning the alliance's expansion to the east," says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia In Global Affairs."

Moscow views NATO as a tool for the United States and Europe to challenge Russia's rising influence. In that sense, Rogozin, who has called for a Russian military buildup to counter NATO's eastward expansion, embodies his country's increasingly assertive stance toward the Atlantic alliance.

Rogozin also endorses Moscow's position on Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo, an issue on which Russia and the West have been at loggerheads. He recently said that if appointed NATO envoy, he would back Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, in opposing UN plans to grant Kosovo internationally supervised independence.

He has also spoken against Washington's proposal to deploy parts of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia says would threaten its national security.

Talented, But Controversial Politician

For Russia's political elite, sending Rogozin to Brussels is also a smart domestic move since it pushes an influential rival out of the Russian political scene, just weeks before a key presidential election.

"Rogozin is an undeniably dynamic, gifted politician with good perspectives in Russian politics," Lukyanov says. "When his potential became clear, he was carefully isolated from Russian politics. But even as an ultranationalist opposition figure, he has always remained respectful and loyal to President Putin. This is why Putin has not forgotten about him, and his appointment shows that Putin trusts him."

Rogozin's Rodina (Motherland) party was barred from elections to the Moscow city parliament in 2005 after a party campaign ad was ruled racist. The controversial spot, which urged voters to "clean up Moscow of rubbish," appeared to denigrate migrants from the Caucasus.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer gave a cautious welcome to Rogozin this week. But he said it was "clear" Russia's new envoy would not iron out differences over Kosovo and missile defense.

Despite Rogozin's often unsavory record, NATO is unlikely to hit the panic button.

"NATO officials are flexible diplomats, they deal with people with reputations ranging from very respectable to controversial," says Yury Fyodorov, a political analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. "I'm convinced Mr. Rogozin won't spark panic at NATO headquarters. He's not that important."

Besides, political analysts widely agree that Rogozin is not the firebrand he appears to be and will undoubtedly put much of his ultranationalist rhetoric on ice as NATO envoy.

"I don't think anything terrible will happen," says Lukyanov. "After initial surprise, the normal diplomatic process will resume. The strategic political stance on NATO will be decided in the Kremlin, not in Brussels with the envoy."

Rogozin studied journalism at Moscow University and his official biography says he speaks Ukrainian, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Czech.

He is seen as a skillful diplomat experienced in foreign affairs, with stints as chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee and Putin's representative in negotiations with the European Union over the status of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.

He has also served as Russia's envoy to the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), a 47-country body focusing on human-rights issues. His term at PACE, however, resulted in a one-year voting ban for Russia in 2000 after he lashed out at a report criticizing the actions of pro-Russian forces in Chechnya.

Rogozin will replace General Konstantin Totsky as NATO envoy, and is expected to take up the post by the end of January.