Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 120

Denials were the order of the day yesterday in Washington, Moscow and Brussels as officials reacted to a New York Times article alleging that Russia and some NATO allies are exploring possible deals by which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be able to leave office–apparently without prosecution for war crimes. According to the Times, the ongoing discussions are “delicate and informal,” and remain highly preliminary. The Times story is based on comments by unnamed senior U.S. and NATO officials, who say that the diplomatic discussions have been spurred by discreet feelers put out by the Milosevic government inquiring into the possibility that Milosevic might be allowed to leave office with guarantees for his safety and his savings.

The government of Greece–which, like Serbia, is also an Orthodox country and has maintained relations with Belgrade–is said by the Times to be playing a key role in the ongoing discussions. The possible deals being explored, the Times’ sources say, involve either exile for Milosevic and his family to a foreign country or–and far less likely–pledges of safety for Milosevic in Serbia from any possible successor government. Western officials, not surprisingly, are said to be listening to such proposals with extreme caution because they remain unsure whether the feelers from Belgrade are serious or have been officially sanctioned by Milosevic (New York Times, June 19).

Assuming that there is some basis for the New York Times piece, then the Western and Russian denials are presumably based on distinctly different calculations. As the Times points out, although the Clinton administration and other Western governments might secretly welcome a political arrangement to get Milosevic out of Belgrade, they are more than reticent to be seen favoring any sort of deal which might free Milosevic from prosecution for war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher appeared to reflect precisely those considerations when, in denying the Times story yesterday, he told reporters that U.S. policy is “fairly simple” on the issue. Milosevic, he said, “should be out of power, out of the country, and in The Hague” (Reuters, June 19).

For Moscow, which has repeatedly blasted The Hague tribunal and earlier this year hosted a visit by the Yugoslav defense minister–himself an indicted war criminal–the considerations are presumably somewhat different. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov yesterday denied the Times story, telling reporters that there “are no secret talks between Russia and the United States about the fate of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.” He also attributed the Times story to the “fertile imagination” of the newspaper’s sources for the piece (Reuters, Russian agencies, June 19). Among other things, the Times reported that the Russian and U.S. presidents had discussed the issue of Milosevic’s possible removal during their summit meeting in Moscow earlier this month. Indeed, Russian sources were reported to have told some NATO-country officials during the summit that Vladimir Putin told Bill Clinton that Miami seemed as good a place for Milosevic as Moscow.

The Russian government has been Milosevic’s staunchest supporter, not only in the diplomatic maneuvering that preceded NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia, but also in its criticism of the NATO campaign itself and in its continuing support for Belgrade since the arrival of the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo last spring. For that reason, Moscow would presumably be reluctant to acknowledge its participation in any discussions with the West over the Yugoslav strongman’s possible removal.

At the same time, however, it is worth noting that Russian policy toward Yugoslavia does seem to have shifted in the weeks since the June 3-4 Russian-U.S. summit. Prior to the summit, Russian support for Milosevic appeared to be hardening. That observation was borne out by Moscow’s secret dispatch of its UN ambassador to Belgrade in April, by the reception given in Moscow to Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic in early May, by a separate visit to Russia by Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic immediately thereafter, and by the manner in which the Russian Foreign Ministry snubbed a visiting delegation of Serbian opposition figures in Moscow on May 29 (see the Monitor, May 16, June 1).

In the aftermath of the Clinton-Putin talks, however, Moscow unexpectedly appeared to begin distancing itself from the Milosevic regime. Among other things, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov laid some blame for Yugoslavia’s increasing diplomatic isolation on Milosevic and suggested that hardline policies in Belgrade were benefiting neither Russia nor Yugoslavia. Equally important, Ivanov rejected calls by Belgrade for the withdrawal from Kosovo of the KFOR peacekeeping force and the UN group administering Kosovo, and criticized Milosevic for his crackdown on domestic opposition groups. In what was perhaps the clearest indication to date that Moscow may have reconciled itself to a post-Milosevic era, Ivanov hinted that Moscow was now as willing to work with opposition figures in Yugoslavia–or with any future government of which they might be a part–as with the Milosevic regime (see the Monitor, June 14).

For the Kremlin, a deal with the West by which Milosevic is removed but–in return for Russian acquiescence–Moscow is assured a significant role in the future rebuilding of Yugoslavia might not be such a bad thing. To date, Russian diplomats have seen in the Milosevic regime one of the few remaining outposts of Russian influence in the region. But because of Belgrade’s diplomatic isolation and Milosevic’s increasing domestic woes, that connection has paid few real dividends for Moscow. A post-Milosevic Yugoslavia, by contrast, could clear up one of Russia’s major points of friction with the West–no small thing in itself–and, if shrewdly negotiated by Moscow, might actually open the way for greater Russian influence in the Balkans. That is not to say that the Kremlin would necessarily jump on board any renewed Western push to oust Milosevic. Indeed, there are hardliners, particularly within the military leadership, who would vigorously oppose it. But it does suggest that Moscow, which is pushing hard under Putin to boost ties with Europe, may now at least see some practical reasons for considering such a course of action.