Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 80

The enduring differences between Moscow and NATO were highlighted over the weekend by the reaction of alliance leaders’ to former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s April 24 peace mission to Belgrade. Alliance members had expressed some cautious interest in the immediate aftermath of Chernomyrdin’s talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, when the Russian special envoy for the Kosovo conflict indicated that Milosevic had agreed to the deployment of a foreign military presence in Kosovo (see the Monitor, April 23). NATO has made the deployment of such a force–a military contingent having, at the very least, a strong NATO component–one of its key demands to Milosevic.

Western interest in the Chernomyrdin mission ended, however, when it became apparent that the Kremlin’s envoy had won no such concession from Belgrade. In an embarrassing reversal for Moscow, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic denied Chernomyrdin’s account of the Belgrade talks. Jovanovic told reporters that he and Chernomyrdin had not even discussed the possibility of an international military presence in Yugoslavia. Further, he suggested that he was unhappy about the claims which Chernomyrdin had made about the talks. Jovanovic also said that the presence of an armed peacekeeping force in Kosovo would “contradict [Yugoslavia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He suggested that, at most, Belgrade might be prepared to accept the return of Albanian refugees to Kosovo under the supervision of an international force. But that force, he said, could neither be armed and nor include representatives of the United States or other countries “involved in aggression against Yugoslavia” (Washington Post, April 24). NATO leaders have already rejected that sort of proposal.

In Moscow, meanwhile, a spokesman for Chernomyrdin said that the former Prime Minister’s remarks had been misinterpreted. The spokesman said that in claiming success regarding deployment of a foreign military force in Kosovo, Chernomyrdin had not been talking about armed troops, but only about “people dressed in military uniforms” as part of an otherwise civilian mission (AP, Russian agencies, April 23).

The backpedaling in Moscow was an obvious embarrassment for Chernomyrdin. But the former prime minister may have suffered another indignity as well. There were unconfirmed reports over the weekend that, in the immediate aftermath of the talks in Belgrade, Chernomyrdin had sought to meet with NATO leaders during the summit meeting in Washington. The effort was reportedly rebuffed when it became clear how little the Russian envoy had actually accomplished in his talks with Milosevic. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was quoted as saying that “the next time [Chernomyrdin] gets in touch, it must be [with] a much more substantial offer [from Milosevic]” (AP, UPI, April 23).

NATO leaders have, nonetheless, made a priority of mending fences with Moscow over Kosovo. There were indications over the weekend that Chernomyrdin will meet in the coming days with a host of Western officials to discuss the crisis and his talks in Belgrade. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, for one, is reportedly making plans to visit Moscow this week, as is Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said that Chernomyrdin would be welcome to visit Germany (Reuters, UPI, April 25).

Chernomyrdin was appointed by President Boris Yeltsin on April 14 as the country’s special envoy for the Kosovo crisis. The unexpected move was described then as part of an effort by the Kremlin to reinvigorate Russia’s role as mediator of the Kosovo crisis. But the appointment appears also to have had domestic political implications and to be part of the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine the political authority of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. A one-time foreign minister whose political power rests in large part on his perceived prowess in that arena, Primakov conducted a peace mission of his own to Belgrade on March 30. He, however, won no substantive concessions from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic; his initiative, furthermore, was rejected by the West.