Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 186

Amid reports out of Belgrade late yesterday and this morning that President Slobodan Milosevic has been overthrown, Western governments welcomed the apparently bloodless change of leadership and moved to welcome Serbia back into the world community (Western agencies, October 5-6). With virtual unanimity Western governments had over the past week demanded that challenger Vojislav Kostunica, who by most unofficial accounts won a majority of votes in last Sunday’s Yugoslav election, be recognized as Yugoslavia’s legally elected president. Despite some reservations about Kostunica’s own political program–he is a strong nationalist whose views on many key issues coincide with those of Milosevic himself–Western governments have seen his accession to the presidency as a victory for Euro-American diplomacy and as a first step toward reintegrating Serbia with the rest of Europe (UPI, September 25, October 5; International Herald Tribune, September 30). With that in mind, the U.S. and other Western governments have pledged to lift sanctions on Yugoslavia following a democratic transfer of power in Belgrade.

How yesterday’s events are being viewed in Moscow, however, may be another matter. Russia has distinguished itself from its Western partners over the past week by refusing to endorse Kostunica’s apparent election victory and by appealing instead for a peaceful resolution of the civil conflict in Serbia on the basis of the country’s laws and constitution. Moscow has also offered itself up as a mediator of the conflict, announcing first that it would dispatch Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade and then inviting both Milosevic and Kostunica to Moscow for talks. Russia has also been mentioned as a possible refuge for Milosevic should he choose to leave Yugoslavia.

What Russian officials have described as their even-handed and low-key approach to the Yugoslav conflict appears to have been designed with one goal in mind: to make Moscow, which is seen as wielding considerable influence in Belgrade, the irreplaceable mediator of the Yugoslav conflict and the author of a solution that would bring Serbia back into the world community. By doing this Moscow hoped not only to increase its own influence in the Balkans, but to restore the luster to Russian diplomacy and to Moscow’s standing on the international stage. As the Russian daily Izvestia put it: “The Yugoslav crisis is Russia’s unexpected chance to make a diplomatic breakthrough. It can restore its position in the Balkans… and solidify is relations with the West.” It can also, Izvestia, said, “improve its image in the eyes of he international community by defending democracy in Serbia together with Europe and the United States.” The newspaper suggested, finally, that Russian support for Kostunica could “become the last straw tipping the scales in favor of the Serb opposition” (Izvestia, October 3).

In the wake of yesterday’s developments in Belgrade, some in Moscow will doubtless wonder whether the Kremlin squandered its chances to accomplish any of the above goals. The low-key Russian approach, which was presumably intended to avoid alienating either side in the Yugoslav struggle, may in fact have discredited Moscow to some degree in the eyes of both. The Kremlin’s diplomatic initiatives, after all, got nowhere. Milosevic rejected the visit to Belgrade by Russia’s Foreign Minister, while neither Milosevic nor Kostunica showed any interest in traveling to Moscow for talks mediated by the Kremlin. Kostunica’s reluctance appeared to stem in large part from Moscow’s de facto embrace of Milosevic’s effort to force a run-off election.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s failure to unambiguously endorse Kostunica’s election victory may not only have cost Moscow influence within the camp of the Yugoslav opposition, but may have generated some new tensions between Moscow and the West as well. The past week was notable in that regard for the reported efforts of U.S. and European leaders to convince Moscow to work toward Milosevic’s ouster. Those Western efforts, apparently conducted in vain, were manifested in Washington’s cautious reaction to the Russian mediation offer and in the leaks by European governments–and particularly of Berlin–to the effect that Putin had privately agreed with the West on the need for Milosevic to go. The Kremlin’s own deeds and public utterances appeared to contradict such assurances, however.

According to some reports, the Kremlin’s apparent ambivalence over the Yugoslav election was the product of domestic concerns and divisions. It was suggested, on the one hand, that Russian leaders were reluctant to join the West in embracing Kostunica because they feared that would alienate what is said to be Russia’s predominantly pro-Serb and anti-Western population. There were also rumored to be deep divisions within the government itself, particularly between those in the Foreign Ministry who backed a position more sympathetic to the Serb opposition and hardliners from the military who continued to insist on Russian support for Milosevic (Reuters, October 4; AP, October 5). That Moscow remains divided on the issue was made clear yesterday, when lawmakers in the Russian State Duma refused to send greetings to Kostunica (Reuters, October 6). In the end Moscow appears also to have been done in by its assumption that, as the standoff worsened in Yugoslavia, both sides would have no choice but to turn to Russia. The Kremlin apparently failed to realize that Milosevic’s ouster by a popular uprising was also a possibility.

In the wake of yesterday’s developments the Kremlin quickly dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade to present Moscow’s congratulations. Reports this morning said that Kostunica had received the Russian minister coolly and had hinted that he did not appreciate Moscow’s earlier indecisiveness in the dispute over the election (Reuters, BBC, October 6). Despite the apparent setback, Moscow can probably nevertheless be counted on to claim some credit for the political breakthrough in Yugoslavia and to seek to establish ties with the new government in Belgrade. And it would be no surprise if Moscow’s meet with some successes in this area. Russian-Serbian ties are strong, and there is little reason to believe that the nationalist-minded Kostunica will want to make Moscow pay too dearly for its failure to endorse his election victory. Western leaders, likewise, will likely make an effort to include Moscow in their efforts to reintegrate Belgrade into Europe. For those in Moscow who might question Vladimir Putin’s fitness for the Russian presidency, however, the Kremlin’s uninspired performance during the Yugoslav crisis may provide some new questions.