Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 43

A UN Security Council meeting held this week and devoted to the Balkans has afforded the Russian government a fresh opportunity to criticize efforts by the West to ostracize and isolate the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Sergei Lavrov, accused the West–and the UN war crimes tribunal–of pursuing policies which are “biased” against Yugoslavia. He said that this bias is proving an insurmountable obstacle to the building of peace in the region. Lavrov called for a comprehensive international effort to begin the process of rebuilding in the Balkans, and repeated Russian demands that Yugoslavia be integrated into this effort as an equal partner.

Lavrov’s remarks followed an address to the Security Council delivered on February 28 by Karl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister who is now serving as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special envoy for the Balkans. Bildt reportedly urged the international community to stand firm on its policy not to deal with Milosevic, but also warned that achieving peace in the region will be almost impossible so long as Milosevic remains in power.

Bildt said that recent problems in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere in the region had left the international peacekeeping effort there looking like a “big holding operation,” and that only change in Serbia would open up “the prospect of moving forward with a proper peace process, as well as with the wider regional agenda of reform, reconciliation and reintegration.” He suggested that the international community faces a conundrum because it cannot deal with Milosevic and other Belgrade leaders–because they are accused of war crimes–but cannot resolve problems in the region without Belgrade’s involvement. The seriousness of those problems, moreover, demand actions which cannot wait for a change of regime in Belgrade. Equally ominously, he warned that Milosevic appears to be building up his forces in preparation for what could be a direct military intervention in Montenegro, the smaller of the two republics making up Yugoslavia (AP, UPI, February 29).

At an open briefing, the United States, Britain and The Netherlands called for the ouster of the current Yugoslav government. But Russia, which has strong ties to Milosevic and sees his survival as a key to building Russian influence in the region, disagreed. Lavrov criticized Bildt’s description of the Belgrade authorities as the main obstacle to the economic and political development of the region. He argued instead that the main obstacle lay in the international community’s unwillingness to work constructively with the Yugoslav federal authorities. Lavrov intimated that Western countries were undermining the peace process in the Balkans by pursuing secret “national agendas,” and warned that this sort of approach “will lead to no result” (AP, Russian agencies, February 29). By Lavrov’s accounting, Moscow apparently has no such agendas.

In a related development, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on February 28 that Moscow is not considering the dispatch of any additional troops to augment the international peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. Last week NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark called urgently for more allied troops to be sent to Kosovo (Washington Post, February 24). It was unclear whether that appeal was directed at Moscow as well as at Western capitals. Moscow now has about 3,600 troops in Kosovo, and that presence was agreed upon only after acrimonious Russian-NATO negotiations.

On February 24 Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov suggested that Moscow was considering the withdrawal of its troops from Kosovo. He attributed the possible withdrawal to the “dangerous development of the situation in Kosovo” and to a possible “sharp aggravation of the situation in the Balkans on the whole” (Itar-Tass, February 24). Moscow has warned on a number of previous occasions that it might withdraw its troops from Kosovo. Those threats have always been accompanied by criticism of the peacekeeping operation–including allegations that NATO troops are biased in favor of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.