Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 110

Western officials were quick to attribute the collapse of yesterday’s talks between Yugoslav and NATO generals–which came only days after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had apparently agreed to the terms of a Western peace agreement–to Milosevic’s well-known penchant for using and abusing international agreements to further his political goals. The failure of the weekend’s talks, which were to have finalized Belgrade’s military withdrawal from Kosovo, were in that regard not a great surprise.

But the diplomatic rollercoaster ride which the Kosovo peace process has turned into over the past few days also appears to reflect a political upheaval in Moscow and the erratic policies flowing from it. By all accounts, last week’s sudden capitulation by Belgrade was as much the result of a political shift in Russia as in the Yugoslav capital itself. That shift appears to have been precipitated by Boris Yeltsin himself when, on May 30, the Russian president ordered his special envoy for the Balkans (former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin) and his foreign minister (Igor Ivanov) to come up with a new strategy to end the deadlock between Russia and the West over Kosovo.

Yeltsin’s order produced a meeting of top government officials, chaired by Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, at which a new strategy for the Kosovo peace talks was reportedly developed. Few details were made available at the time, but the new strategy probably explains Chernomyrdin’s willingness to make last-minute concessions to the NATO nations during his June 2 talks with European Union envoy Martti Ahtisaari and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in Bonn. The Russian concessions opened the way both to Chernomyrdin’s and Ahtisaari’s joint mission to Belgrade, and to Milosevic’s apparent acceptance of Western peace terms.

Moscow’s new willingness to deal was reportedly signaled to Washington on May 31, when Stepashin spoke by telephone with U.S. President Bill Clinton. U.S. officials suggested afterward that Yeltsin had moved to break the logjam over Kosovo because of his determination to improve ties with the West prior to a summit meeting of the Group of Seven countries plus Russia, which is scheduled to begin in Cologne, Germany on June 18. Yeltsin presumably hopes to improve Russia’s chances of garnering much needed economic aid from the West during the meeting. Reportedly, he would also like to attend the event wearing the mantle of a peacemaker at least in part responsible for a settlement of the Balkans conflict.

For all of that, Moscow clung to its hardline positions throughout the intensive series of negotiations among Chernomyrdin, Ahtisaari and Talbott which took place last week. In particular, Moscow continued to back Belgrade’s rejection of both a NATO-controlled Kosovo peace force and demands that Yugoslav troops be withdrawn in their entirely from Kosovo. On the morning of June 2, however, when it appeared that the peace talks in Bonn were doomed to failure, Chernomyrdin reportedly received fresh instructions–presumably from Yeltsin’s office–ordering him to hammer out an agreement with the West and to go to Belgrade with Ahtisaari. The key concession was said to have been Chernomyrdin’s agreement that “all” Yugoslav forces had to vacate Kosovo. Agreement on that point apparently freed up negotiations which had been deadlocked for weeks (Washington Post, June 4, 6; UPI, Itar-Tass, May 31; Reuters, June 30).