Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 20

Moscow’s embarrassing exclusion from the Middle East summit came on the heels of what appeared to be another diplomatic setback for the Kremlin: its apparent mishandling of President Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster in Yugoslavia. Earlier, many in Moscow had assessed the political standoff there as a golden opportunity for Russia. They saw the West as an impotent bystander in the Yugoslav struggle, and believed that the competing political groupings in Belgrade would ultimately be compelled to turn to Moscow as a mediator. And that, they felt, would open the door to greater Russian influence in the Balkans and to renewed prestige for Moscow as an international peacemaker.

Moscow’s calculations began to fall apart, however, as presidential election victor Vojislav Kostunica’s adroit use of his movement’s popular support began to knock the pins out from under Milosevic’s regime. At the critical point Moscow failed to comprehend the rapidly changing correlation of forces in Serbia, and its hedging and cautious resort to legalisms alienated the Kostunica camp while doing nothing to prop up or ease out Milosevic. The Kremlin hastily dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade on October 5 to repair the damage, but his meeting with Kostunica the following day was reported to have been a cool one. Ivanov compounded Moscow’s misreading of the situation by saying publicly that Milosevic–with whom Ivanov had met earlier–would continue to play an important role in Yugoslav politics. That statement further embittered the Kostunica camp.

Russia’s ambivalent and ultimately ineffectual approach to the Yugoslav political struggle appeared to be a result not only of a misreading of developments in Belgrade, but also of divisions within Russia’s political elite itself. That is, many in Moscow insisted that the Kremlin maintain its longtime support for Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic despite the fact that his days in power clearly seemed numbered. For all of that, Russian officials maintained after Milosevic’s fall that relations between Moscow and Belgrade would remain strong. They pointed especially to statements by Kostunica indicating his desire to maintain friendly ties with Russia. They also suggested that Russia would play a significant role in the rebuilding of Serbia, and some enthused over the possibilities of lucrative arms trading between the two countries.