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Next Step : Look Eastward, Russia: the New Asian Interest : Disappointed with the West and hungry for capital, Yeltsin courts Japan, China, India and South Korea.


MOSCOW — The Romanov eagle had two heads, it is said, to look both east and west.

It was a fine symbol for Russia's royal family, but the reality of Russian diplomacy and politics has been quite different. If most of its "body" is physically in Asia, the "head" of Russia has constantly been in Europe, where its history stretches back more than a thousand years.

And indeed, since taking charge here 10 months ago, President Boris N. Yeltsin and his advisers have had their eyes firmly fixed on Europe and the United States. For what is, ironically, Asia's largest nation, relations with neighbors to the east have been little more than a casual concern.

Until now, that is.

For many reasons--commercial pressures, Moscow's abiding dream to modernize Siberia, frustration in some circles with the West, military and security concerns--the Russians have begun paying attention to the world's biggest, most populated, fastest-growing continent.

Despite the fiasco of his canceled visit to Japan last month, Yeltsin and his team show every sign of trying to launch an Asian initiative. Between now and January, the Russian leader is scheduled to visit China, India and South Korea. The trip to Seoul, originally postponed indefinitely along with the Japan visit, is now reset for Nov. 18-20.

Why the surge of interest?

"What the Russian leadership is now trying to do is mend the great imbalance in its international policy," Yuri S. Peskov of the Moscow-based Far Eastern Institute said. "While we have well-established contacts with Europe and the U.S.A. and great shifts in that direction have been achieved, relations and ties with the countries of the Orient are still in the process of acquiring their proper shape.

"The greater part of Russia lies in Asia," Peskov said. "That is why we must do our utmost not to allow a pro-Western slant in our diplomacy."

Moscow's immediate goals in Asia are to win a share of foreign markets and to give an economic jump-start to the nearly 80% of Russian territory--most of it an industrial backwater--that lies east of the Ural Mountains that divide Europe and Asia.

The question is: How to do it?

The think tanks and institutes that have input into the making of Russian foreign policy are divided into two major camps: One urges recognition that Japan is the No. 1 economic presence (and therefore, the most important country) in the region--the only one with pockets deep enough to provide capital and technology for pushing Siberia into the 21st Century.

Another camp urges priority for China, with which Russia shares a seat on the U.N. Security Council, nuclear-weapons capability, a 2,600-mile border and prosperous and growing two-way trade.

For the time being, no definite choice has been made. In fact, Russian experts and foreign diplomats acknowledge that Russia does not yet have a single, coherent policy toward Asia, probably because this debate is encrusted in more fundamental reflections about Russia itself. Should it strive to be Western, or does its role as a land bridge across two continents imply a Eurasian identity?

As Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev put it: "We have an unprecedented opportunity to be Asians in Asia and Europeans in Europe."

Tilting Toward Tokyo

For the moment, "Japanologists" have the upper hand at the Foreign Ministry here. For the first time, the ministry's top Asia hand is not a China-watcher, but a specialist on Japan: Georgy F. Kunadze, who speaks fluent Japanese.

Kozyrev himself has stressed that better ties with Tokyo are indispensable for a more prosperous Russian future. "If we don't have normal contacts with Japan, you understand, that would mean not entering the Asian economic space," he told a television interviewer. "The average Russian won't see Japanese goods, Japanese joint ventures, Toyotas and a lot of other things."

Tokyo's critical role will be highlighted this week, when it hosts a meeting of 70 nations--including the United States--to review economic aid programs to Russia and the other former Soviet republics. News reports say Japan is especially interested in alleviating food and medical-supply problems in the Russian Far East.

Since the mid-1950s at least, forging friendly relations with Japan is a goal that has eluded the Russians. The cause and effect are what Konstantin O. Sarkisov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Japanese Studies, calls a diplomatic "closed circle."

Japan wants Russia to relinquish four islands at the southern end of the Kuril chain that Moscow seized at the end of World War II before it agrees to a peace treaty and closer ties; Russia wants the treaty and better relations in general before the dispute is completely resolved.

Yeltsin's inability to find an exit from this "closed circle" that would not enrage a large part of Russian opinion is what kept him from flying to Tokyo as scheduled in September.

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