Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 148

The Kremlin has appeared more and more of late to be struggling with its policy toward the Balkans. Moscow’s long pro-Belgrade stance was much in evidence during the July 30 Balkans assistance summit in Sarajevo, where Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin criticized the West for refusing to extend aid to Serbia. At the same time, there have been signals that Russian leaders may for the first time be looking to distance themselves from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Moscow’s ambivalence appears to stem, on the one hand, from a realization that the country’s pro-Belgrade stance has left it isolated from much of the West and is now complicating Russian efforts to rebuild ties to the United States and Europe. At the same time, however, the Kremlin has been so active in adopting the stridently anti-Western and anti-NATO tone of hardline Russian opposition groups that it is finding it difficult to shift gears. The fact that Russia is in the middle of an election season has only made that task harder.

Indeed, for Western leaders now accustomed to dealing with uncritical Russian support for Belgrade, the script played out in Sarajevo on Friday was a familiar one. The Russian delegation successfully blocked efforts by the European Union and the United States to include a reference in the summit’s final declaration which would have placed the blame for Serbia’s isolation squarely on Milosevic. Instead, while summit participants took a hard line overall against Serbia, the formal declaration spoke only of regret that Yugoslavia could not be invited to the meeting and called on Serbs to implement democratic reforms.

Russian obstructionism was manifested more generally in Sarajevo by Stepashin’s denunciations of Western determination to use aid as a means of driving Milosevic from office. “We do not associate [ourselves] with this strict linkage that it’s either Milosevic or assistance,” the Russian prime minister told a news conference at the close of the summit. Stepashin, who was accompanied to Sarajevo by Economics Minister Andrei Shapovalyants and Russia’s envoy to the G-7 nations, Aleksandr Livshits, repeated arguments that he had made last week during a whirlwind visit to the United States. There he warned that the West would be creating a new humanitarian disaster in the Balkans–one involving 10 million Serbs–if it refused to grant aid to Belgrade. “The West’s approach could lead to serious repercussions,” Stepashin said on Friday. “Ten million people will be on the verge of very great difficulties by the winter” (Reuters, Russian agencies, July 30).