In addition to Milosevic’s own well-documented untrustworthiness as a partner, ambiguities surrounding Russia’s role as a peace mediator are another reason for continued Western uncertainty–and skepticism–over the weekend’s diplomatic developments. At least until recently, Western officials apparently believed that the peace proposals being conveyed by Moscow to Belgrade differed in important ways from the West’s own demands on Yugoslavia. Such suspicions were highlighted in a report published on May 29. It suggested that Russia’s role as a peace mediator was endangered by Moscow’s unwillingness to endorse core NATO demands or to pressure Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into accepting them. The report cited U.S. and NATO sources as saying that Moscow was bracing for a breakdown in its diplomatic effort and for a new level of tension in relations with the West (Washington Post, May 29).
On the same day, however, other Western diplomats were quoted as saying that Russia had at last agreed to the NATO demand that alliance forces must serve as the core of any postsettlement Kosovo security force. That demand, they said, was brought by Chernomyrdin to Belgrade during his May 28 talks with Milosevic. They also suggested that the shift in Moscow’s position could bring Russian President Boris Yeltsin close to a political showdown with Belgrade. Until now, they said, Moscow had never challenged Milosevic’s refusal to accept anything but a lightly armed peacekeeping force in Kosovo–one including forces from Russia and neutral countries but excluding the NATO countries which have participated in the air campaign against Yugoslavia (The International Herald Tribune, May 29).
Whatever the precise contours of the plan presented to Milosevic by Chernomyrdin on May 28, Russian diplomats and government officials appeared yesterday at least to have regained some of their optimism over the course of negotiations. (On May 29, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had complained that Russia’s mediation efforts were unappreciated by the West.) Following talks in the Kremlin with President Boris Yeltsin, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin told reporters that he saw “real chances” emerging “for breaking the deadlock over Yugoslavia.” Stepashin also held a telephone conversation yesterday with U.S. President Bill Clinton–his first–during which the two men discussed Kosovo (UPI, Itar-Tass, May 31).
In addition, Stepashin convened a meeting yesterday of senior officials to discuss Russian policy vis-a-vis the Kosovo crisis. Along with Chernomyrdin, those present included Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Vyacheslav Trubnikov. Details concerning the substance of the discussions were not made public (Reuters, Itar-Tass, may 31).
In a sidebar to the latest developments over Kosovo, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said on May 28 that he was “appalled” by an opinion piece written by Chernomyrdin and published in “The Washington Post” one day earlier. Talbott said to reporters in Brussels, “I disagree with everything in his article including the punctuation points… I can’t offer you any searching insights into what the motive was…. The historical basis for the comparisons he drew is nonexistent and absurd.” Among other things, Chernomyrdin compared NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia to the 1968 crushing by Soviet tanks of the “Prague Spring.” He also warned that he would recommend withdrawing Russia from the Kosovo negotiations if NATO did not stop the air attacks (Reuters, May 28; Washington Post, May 27).
INTERIOR FORCES AND CHECHEN FIGHTERS SHOOT IT OUT ON BORDER.