Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 15

Moscow attempts to play power broker in former Yugoslavia

Moscow’s reactive bid for greater influence in ex-Yugoslavia,the resilience of Chechen independence aspirations, and the searchfor new security arrangements in the post-Soviet space commandedparticular attention during the past week.


In a lightning operation from August 4 through 7, Croatian forcesrecaptured Krajina, held since 1991 by Serb insurgents in therole of proxies for the Serbian army. Moscow’s reaction indicatedthat it regarded this development as a strategic reverse for itselfas well as for its ally. In an attempt to redirect the dynamicof events to its advantage, Moscow urgently offered to mediatenegotiations between Serbia and Croatia toward a general peacesettlement for ex-Yugoslavia. On August 7, his first morning backat work after a four-week long medical leave, Russian presidentBoris Yeltsin invited the Serbian and Croatian presidents, SlobodanMilosevic and Franjo Tudjman, to negotiations in Moscow on August10 under his arbitration. The initiative appeared aimed to ensnareCroatia in a Russian-arbitrated grand settlement that would correspondinglyreduce the West’s role and influence in the region. Moscow’s incentiveto Croatia, it was feared, could have been the spoils of a Serb-Croatpartition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which may have explained whythe latter’s president Alija Izetbegovic was not invited.

The move was boldly conceived but seemed built on false premisesand was poorly executed. In what appeared to be an embarrassingmisunderstanding, Yeltsin and the Foreign Ministry publicly professedcomplete confidence in Tudjman’s going along with the plan, onlyto be disabused by the Croatian president’s public refusal, virtuallyhours before his and Milosevic’s expected arrival. Tudjman saidin Zagreb that a meeting of that kind ought to be carefully preparedand that Bosnia’s president should in any case have been included.Tudjman’s office said that he had no interest in a Russian mediationto begin with. Whatever chances of success it might have theoreticallystood in Zagreb, Moscow undercut its own initiative, perhaps fatally,because it was unable to replace overnight its stridently pro-Serbianbias with a more evenhanded posture. Instead, even while awaitingTudjman in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry and Andrei Kozyrev personallyissued a string of vehement condemnations of Croatia’s operationin Krajina, launched unsubstantiated accusations of criminal behavioragainst Croatian forces, and used phrasing which questioned Croatia’slegal title to Krajina and East Slavonia. In Russia’s Duma, representativesof most parliamentary factions also showed strong support forthe Serbian cause.

It was therefore hardly surprising that Milosevic’s lone visitto Moscow on August 11th had moments resembling a love feast.In lengthy televised statements, Yeltsin, seconded by other Russianofficials, absolved Serbia of responsibility for the wars in ex-Yugoslavia,credited Belgrade with peaceful intentions, defended the Serbleaders in Bosnia against the charges pending in the internationaltribunal, warned that Russia would unilaterally lift the economicsanctions against rump Yugoslavia if the Western powers did notinitiate such a measure, and cast Russian-Serbian ties in a historicand pan-Slav framework. While the snub from Tudjman caused Moscowto reemphasize its relations with Serbia, it also served to underscoreRussia’s poor qualifications for the role of mediator or arbiterin the conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia.


The third week in the life of the armistice agreement demonstratedthat it did little to settle the situation in Chechnya. Aftera brief lull early in the week, armed incidents between Russianand Chechen forces resumed. They could have taken on far largerproportions than they did, had Russian forces challenged Chechendetachments openly moving in and about some localities. Pro-Dudayevrallies were held in towns and villages, sometimes in the presenceof Russian forces which usually did not react. Reports multipliedabout Chechen resistance groups joining the militia of the Moscow-installedChechen administration in order to disrupt it and gain accessto arms. It became increasingly apparent that the armistice agreement,with its provisions on the withdrawal of Russian troops, servedto restore Chechen confidence, focus expectations on the withdrawalrather than on the concessions tied to it, and strengthen pro-independencesentiment.

The anticipated exchange of prisoners continued to be frustratedby disagreements over how many prisoners each side holds. TheChechen side maintained that many of the prisoners on the listspresented by the Russian side were among those released to theirfamilies or to Soldiers’ Mothers’ committees during the war, aswas the Chechen practice. The Russian side blocked the exchangeby insisting on it being conducted on a "one-for-one"basis, whereas the Chechen side urged a fairer "all-for-all"exchange. And most importantly, agreement on Chechnya’s futurepolitical status or even some concept of that status remainedas elusive as ever. Yeltsin’s statements about postponing theChechen elections into next year instead of this coming November,and Moscow’s insistence on excluding Dudayev from the negotiationsand barring him from the elections, underscored that gap and increasedthe political volatility of the situation.

Frustrations also mounted in the narrow ranks of the Moscow-installed–whichis not to say pro-Moscow–Khadziev-Avturkhanov administration,worried about a deal over its head between Moscow and the resistanceand opposed to elections in the knowledge that it would lose them.Aslan Maskhadov and other Chechen commanders warned that the collaborationistgroup might provoke clashes with diehard Dudayev loyalists inorder to derail the elections. On the resistance side, symptomsof fragmentation of command authority increased. The Russian commandsought to exacerbate this trend through manipulative reportingin the media, despite the risk of such a tactic backfiring onthe Russian side. Indeed, fragmentation of authority could reachthe point at which it would prevent the Chechen side from deliveringon its armistice obligations and destabilize the situation beyondanyone’s control.


The week saw a proliferation of political and military contactsbetween the ex-Soviet countries (as well as their immediate neighborsin East-Central Europe) on the one hand and NATO and its membercountries on the other. It was also high season for joint militaryexercises, mostly within the framework of NATO’s Partnership forPeace program. The three-week long US-Lithuanian ground troopexercise Amber Hope got under way at Rukla in central Lithuania.That country and Latvia signed military cooperation agreementswith Norway, and Estonia was scheduled to follow suit. And sixtyparliamentary deputies from the three Baltic states left for adefense course at the George C. Marshall European Security TrainingCenter as part of a US-German program to promote military integrationbetween NATO and the new democracies. Nearly 1,000 soldiers from14 former Warsaw Pact and ex-Soviet countries joined US troopsin the Cooperative Nugget exercises at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Thenine-day long multilateral naval exercise Breeze proceeded inthe western Black Sea, and preparations were completed for thefive-day long Danube multilateral exercise. In both of these,Ukraine and other countries riparian to the Black Sea and theDanube joined the USA and NATO countries, but there was no wordon Russian participation. As Estonia’s defense forces commander,Lt. General Alexandr Einseln, observed, the doors to NATO seemcurrently closed but are not locked, and the key is learning tolive up to NATO military standards.