Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 23

Brotherly Love: Russia and the Serbs

By Igor Rotar

When I first arrived in Belgrade, I addressed people in English.But I got unexpected reactions: "Why do you speak this fascistlanguage? They bomb us, the Slavs. Speak Russian. You, the Russians,are our brothers!" a waiter in a cafe replied with annoyance.

Anti-Western sentiments are very strong both among ordinary Serbpeople and Yugoslavian politicians. The belief that the wholeworld wants to extinguish the Serbs is deeply ingrained in theminds of the public. "Both the West and the Muslim worldhave united against us, the Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christianityis a thorn in their flesh and they will not relax until they haveeliminated our civilization!" said a refugee from Knin, acity seized by the Croatian Army.

"Eventually, Russia will realize that [the NATO air strikesagainst Serb positions] in Sarajevo is just a dress rehearsal.Russia is next on their list!" self-proclaimed Bosnian Serbrepublic parliament chairman Mamchelo Kraishnik told a visitingdelegation of Russian parliamentary deputies.

The aversion of the Serbs to the West and the Islamic world leadsthem to rely on Moscow. The Serbian people believe that Russiais their sole ally and, to a certain extent, a savior of the Serbs.There are some historical grounds to the Serbs’ expectations thatthey will receive assistance from Moscow. The Serbs, like Bulgarians,revere Russia for freeing them from the Turkish yoke. The OrthodoxChristian Serbia has a cultural affinity for Russia as well.

"The Serbs love Russia–irrationally!" Yablokofaction leader and former USSR ambassador to the US Vladimir Lukinremarked during a recent trip to Belgrade.

"Serbs have always believed only in God and in Russia!"self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb republic foreign minister Alexa Bukhaannounced at a press conference recently.

But Russia’s influence on the Balkan conflict has been negligible.Moreover, except for making several declarative statements, officialMoscow has not rendered any tangible assistance to the Serbs.Nevertheless, the Serbs stubbornly continue to believe in thepossibility of Russia’s assistance and tirelessly repeat theirpopular proverb: "Together with the Russians we number 300million." Almost every shop window in Belgrade carries aposter showing a charming baby and an inscription saying: "WhenWill I Begin to Learn Russian?"

Solidarity in the Duma

Most of the Russian delegations which have trekked to Belgradein recent months to show solidarity with their Slavic "brothers"have been comprised of nationalists. But in September, I accompanieda delegation of Duma deputies headed by Vladimir Lukin, StateDuma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. Lukin’s pro-Western,reformist image–he served as ambassador to the US and was oneof the founders of the Yabloko party–make his visit an interestingcase study.

As soon as Lukin stepped onto the tarmac at the Belgrade airport,he began his pro-Serbian rhetoric. "Our task," he remarkedaddressing the group of Yugoslavian Foreign Ministry representativeswho come to meet him in the airport, "is to show that weare with you. And as long as your country faces a military threat,Russian deputies will stay on duty in Yugoslavia. If the Americanswant to bomb this country, let them drop bombs on me, the formerambassador to their country."

The delegation’s agenda included meetings in Belgrade with Yugoslavianpresident Lidic, the leaders of the upper and lower houses ofthe Serbian parliament, and other government and church leaders.The delegation continued on to the capital of the self-proclaimedBosnian Serb Republic, where Lukin and company were received bythe local parliament chairman. They also visited the front linein the city of Banja Luka and saw encampments of Serbian refugees.

Every conversation between guests and hosts were nearly identical.Lukin opened each conversation by declaring: "Russia wantsto help you, and if there are some who do not, they are in theminority in Russia and this minority is being wiped out by history."The Russian deputies and the Yugoslavian officials were in completeagreement on every issue discussed. They both stated that thepolicy pursued by Western countries towards Yugoslavia is a policyof "double standard." They demanded that NATO immediatelycease all military actions [NATO airstrikes were in progress atthe time the delegation visited], and that economic sanctionsagainst Yugoslavia be lifted.

"The Western states, specifically Germany, have definitelypursued their own profit in this war. In 1975, the principle ofinviolability of the borders was proclaimed. Therefore, Belgradehad every reason to use force when the republics of Yugoslaviaunilaterally declared their independence. However, the Westernstates, acting against the provisions of the declaration whichthey had signed, recognized the independence of the Yugoslavianrepublics. Unfortunately, Russia made the same mistake… Whenthe Croatian army introduced her troops into the Krajina, theWestern states acted as if nothing happened. However, when weintroduced our troops in Chechnya, there was a world-wide outcry.Russia, and the State Duma, have gotten sick and tired of thispolicy," Vladimir Lukin said.

In each meeting, the question of the immediate resumption ofRussia’s gas supplies to Yugoslavia, and wheat supplies from Yugoslaviato Russia, was mentioned. "If we do not receive your wheat,"Lukin stressed, "we will assume that the West has expandedits economic sanctions to Russia."

[An interesting footnote to the visit was that the deputies wereable to examine the results of the NATO air strikes around Sarajevo,and compare the scale of damage with that inflicted by Russianbombers in Chechnya. NATO’s aircraft actually bombed only militarytargets. There were few exceptions: a bomb exploded near the ElectrotechnicsFaculty of Sarajevo University, which resulted in shattered windowsand some other minor damage; several shells exploded near an apartmenthouse and a hospital which wounded 10 people and damaged the buildings.However, these cases were not typical. In general, NATO planesdelivered their strikes with such a high degree of precision thatthere were no victims — neither among civilians nor the military.]

Russian "Blue Helmets"

The French military constitutes approximately 75 percent of theUN peacekeeping contingent (UNPF) deployed around Sarajevo. Inaddition to the French, deployed in the area around the Serb capitalis a Ukrainian battalion, Egyptian battalion and Russian battalion.

The Russian battalion numbers 500 men. A UNPF soldier is paid$800 per month and an officer is paid $900 per month. This isgood pay for Russian soldiers (by comparison: A soldier hiredon contract to serve in Chechnya is paid approximately one millionrubles [$200] per month.) Almost all members of the UNPF Russianbattalion have been selected from the Russian Airborne Troops.Nearly all the rank-and-file here are past their conscriptionand serve in the Russian army on contract.

Noteworthy, the Russian battalion is the only formation of theUN contingent in Yugoslavia which is deployed on the territorywhich is controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. There had been plansto deploy the Egyptian battalion (together with the Russian battalion)in the Serb sector of Sarajevo, but the Serbs agreed to acceptonly their "brothers by blood and religion," i.e., theRussians.

The neutrality of the Russian peacekeepers in the conflictis definitely not to the liking of the Serbs. "Initiallythey treated us as brothers and allies and now they increasinglyoften refer to us as occupiers," Russian servicemen toldme.

Approximately one-third of the Russian officers who are nowin Yugoslavia as part of the UNPF are opposed to the Russian policyin the Balkans in principle. Their stance boils down to the followingstatement: "In order to preserve her influence in the Balkans, Russia must support the Serbs in the conflict."

The also explains why the Russian press reports that Moscow wouldlike to send as many as 20,000 additional troops for peacekeeping:to increase Russian influence in the region. Moscow can’t affordto support such a large contingent, and since these forces willnot be under NATO command, it is unlikely that Russian soldierswill be paid from NATO’s budget. Therefore, the new Russian peacekeepingcontingent is not likely to exceed 2,000 men.

As the number of Russian peacekeepers is increased under thenew peacekeeping arrangements, the Serbian enthusiasm for Russiansis likely to continue to wane. Russian troops will no doubt beposted outside of the Serb-controlled territories. Their presencein the Muslim-held sector of Sarajevo, for example, would furtherundermine the Serbs’ trust of the Russian contingent. When RussianUNPF troops accompany humanitarian aid to the Muslim enclaves,it provokes open hostility among the Serbs. (In fact, the Serbsdon’t trust any of the UNPF troops which are deployed in Muslimterritory, which currently includes the Catholic French, the MuslimEgyptians and the Orthodox Ukrainians.)

Foreign Policy/Domestic Politics

Thus the idea of the "Slavic brothers," united byOrthodox Christianity, has been revealed as nothing more thana myth. In reality, Russia’s influence on the situation in theformer Yugoslavia is negligible.

But the impact of the conflict on Russian domestic politics maynot be so small. Lukin admitted to me that many Duma deputies"began their election campaign here, in Yugoslavia."The election season in Russia forced Defense Minister Pavel Grachevto take a hard-line position in negotiations over the role offuture Russian peacekeepers. He wants a compromise from the West: Russian troops would be exempted from serving their duty underNATO’s command, but would be commanded by US officers.

Given the popularity of the nationalist and Communist partiesrunning in the parliamentary elections, it was critically importantthat the Kremlin establish its independence from the West duringthese negotiations. Back home, the nationalists and Communistsare successfully catering to the Russian voters’ nostalgia forthe days when Russia was a great power. In a feeble attempt tore-establish its "great-power" image for the electorate, the Kremlin has reversed Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim: it walks loudlyand carries a tiny stick in the former Yugoslavia.

Igor Rotar is a correspondent for "Izvestiya."