Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 199

Having wrong-footed the ouster of President Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian government has tried over the past several weeks to make up lost ground and build friendly relations with newly elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. The Russian efforts have been manifested in a series of statements by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in the dispatch to Belgrade yesterday of a top ranking Russian lawmaker, and in the Kremlin’s October 23 announcement that President Vladimir Putin will host a visit by Kostunica on October 27.

For Moscow the stakes are high. The Kremlin enjoyed close ties to the Milosevic regime, and saw Belgrade as its most important outpost of influence in the Balkans region. By hesitating to throw its weight behind Kostunica following his electoral victory last month, however, the Kremlin appeared to have weakened its position in Serbia. Now, in an effort to make up for the misplay, Russian officials appear to be moving toward the same sort of uncritical support for Belgrade which characterized its ties to Yugoslavia during the last years of Milosevic’s rule.

But Moscow’s positions in this regard could once again put it in conflict with the West. Just as during the Milosevic period, Moscow appears intent both on supporting Belgrade’s claims to sovereignty over both Montenegro and Kosovo, and on opposing Western efforts to make Milosevic answer for the war crimes he is accused of. Russian officials have also continued to accuse the West of having perpetrated a military aggression against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict. They have called on the West to atone for its alleged sins by assuming the burden of Serbia’s reconstruction. Russian positions on these already difficult issues are presumably aimed at ingratiating Moscow with the new rulers of Yugoslavia. Their effect, however, could be to stiffen the resolve of hardliners in Belgrade and to rekindle tensions between Serbia and the West while complicating the effort to begin integrating Belgrade with the European community.

Moscow’s posture on these issues has been reflected recently in several of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s statements. Speaking to reporters on his arrival in Bucharest on October 20, Ivanov said that “damages caused by NATO’s air strikes cannot simply be forgotten” and that the “countries which participated in the aggression against Yugoslavia must become the main donors” in helping the country to rebuild. Ivanov also called for all sanctions on Yugoslavia to be lifted–the European Union and the United States have already announced their intention to lift most sanctions on Belgrade–and was quoted as saying that “Kostunica must be supported” by the international community.

The new Yugoslav president was, of course, supported by the West long before he was embraced by Moscow. Ivanov’s call for support may be significant, however, insofar as it appears to be based on a calculus which differs considerably from the West’s. While Washington and the EU have hoped to buttress Kostunica against pro-Milosevic forces at home and to encourage the more general development of democracy in Yugoslavia, Moscow’s talk of support focuses instead on the issues which divided Yugoslavia from the West in the first place. Thus, Ivanov’s remarks in this area appeared to be related in large part to issue of Yugoslav sovereignty over both Montenegro and Kosovo. “The problems regarding Montenegro and the Kosovo province,” Ivanov was quoted as saying, “can only be solved in the context of Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity.” Ivanov’s talk of an early lifting of sanctions against Belgrade likewise appear to be aimed at getting the West to drop its efforts to prosecute Milosevic for war crimes (AFP, October 20-21; Reuters, October 21).

That Moscow may be looking to profit diplomatically from Belgrade’s continuing sensitivities about control over Kosovo and Montenegro was suggested by reports covering yesterday’s talks in Belgrade between Russian lawmaker Dmitry Rogozin and the new Yugoslav leadership. Rogozin, who chairs the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said following his talks with the Yugoslav president that their primary discussion topic was Belgrade’s position toward Kosovo and Montenegro. He also suggested the talks had reflected a common understanding between Moscow and Belgrade that the unwillingness of the West to lift all sanctions constitutes a form of “pressure on Yugoslavia” (APN, October 24).

The agenda may be much the same during Kostunica’s Friday visit to Moscow. The new Yugoslav president is scheduled to hold talks not only with Putin and Ivanov, but also to meet with the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksy II. Russian press reports yesterday, meanwhile, quoted Putin as saying that the Kremlin has a “program to develop ties with Yugoslavia in a number of different areas.” And Russian reports pointed to the fact that the Moscow visit is Kostunica’s first “real” foreign policy trip (Kostunica has traveled already to Biarritz for talks with EU leaders and more recently to Bosnia) as an indication of the importance which Belgrade continues to attach to relations with Russia.

But Russian experts were also quoted yesterday as saying that the main objective of Kostunica’s Moscow visit was to ensure Russian backing for Belgrade in the looming face-off with the West over Kosovo (AFP, October 24). If accurate, that suggests the new Kostunica government may have at least one characteristic in common with the regime that preceded it: a facility for using Russia’s weakness and its desperation for geopolitical gains as a lever to line up Moscow behind Belgrade and against the West on the issue of Kosovo.