Russian Continues the Tantrum Tradition at U.N.

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

UNITED NATIONS -- Russia has brandished a new weapon in its diplomatic arsenal: the Security Council tantrum.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin barged out of the U.N. chamber Dec. 11, canceling a crucial meeting on Iran's nuclear program. Asked to explain why the 15-nation council's major powers would not be able to address the Iranian nuclear crisis, Churkin said: "Because. Because I said so."

The Russian's outburst reflected anger over a U.S. decision to raise concern about political developments in Belarus, a Russian ally that has gained international condemnation for its repressive policies.

But it also echoed a classic Soviet practice at the United Nations dating back to 1945, when Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin's envoy, Andrei Gromyko, also used bluster to exact political concessions, threatening to pull out of the new organization unless the Security Council veto was expanded. Stalin won that fight. The practice reached its peak more than a decade later when another Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, famously banged his shoe on his table in the U.N. General Assembly.

"It's something we used to associate with the Soviets, but the Russians have sort of taken this over," said Edward Luck, a Columbia University historian who studies the United Nations. "This is a negotiating tactic. The other side has to make it up to you as though you have been deeply offended. We've done it at times, and others do it."

Churkin's angry reactions to diplomatic affronts have become so common that some U.N. diplomats have invented a word to describe it: Vitalyation (rhymes with "retaliation"). But the former Soviet official has parlayed Russian outrage into tactical diplomatic victories.

The United States dropped sanctions last month against Sukhoi, a Russian jetmaker that supplies Iran, after Churkin and other top Russian officials hinted that it could jeopardize negotiations over Iran. "If they want to go it on their own, you know, legislating unilateral sanctions, they are welcome to tackle the problem alone," Churkin said.

Churkin expressed confidence this month that the United States would drop its concerns about Belarus's rights record in the council.

"I don't think they will raise" the issue again, he said. "We have had some exchanges about it, and I think we now understand better a certain choice needs to be made: Either we use the Security Council as an important instrument to discuss and resolve serious international problems, or attempts can be allowed to use it as a platform for propaganda. Our preference is to focus on important things."

Senior Europeans said that the U.S. decision to raise the issue of Belarus needlessly provoked Russia at a critical stage in the Iran negotiations and that Churkin was right in asserting that the issue does not constitute a threat to international peace and security, the threshold for Security Council involvement in a crisis.

Britain, France and the U.S. mission to the United Nations had urged the State Department not to mention Belarus in the 15-nation body until after they had concluded talks over Iran. But the State Department dismissed those concerns, instructing the U.S. political counselor, William Brencick, to urge the council to remain vigilant about developments in Belarus, citing concern over the recent 54-day hunger strike by a jailed former presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin.

A senior U.S. official said they were responding to a plea by Kozulin's wife, who said her husband would resume eating if the United States discussed her husband's plight in the Security Council. Kozulin ended the hunger strike on the same day.

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