Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 61

Russia’s disparate and usually fractious political groupings found a rare opportunity to speak in one voice last week: On March 24, the eve of Russia’s presidential election and the anniversary of the start of NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia, they came together to denounce Western policy in the Balkans. The protests included one rally of several hundred people sponsored by the Russian Communist Party and the Union of Serb Communities. Communist Party activists also picketed the U.S. and Polish embassies. The latter, which has also faced protests of late over alleged Polish support for pro-Chechen groups in Poland, was reportedly targeted on the basis of its recent entry into NATO, which was denounced as a “betrayal of the Slavic brotherhood.” There was also a church service on March 24 commemorating the victims of NATO’s bombardments (Itar-Tass, March 24).

These latest denunciations of NATO policy in the Balkans were, in many cases, clearly aimed at energizing nationalist-minded voters and exploiting anti-Western sentiment just before the Russian presidential election. The substance of the criticism, however, contained nothing new. The Western alliance was accused of having bombed Yugoslavia to further its own geostrategic interests in the Balkans. Various commentators charged that the NATO air campaign had actually worsened conditions in the region. Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to the United States and currently a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said that the air war had accomplished none of NATO’s stated aims. “The humanitarian situation in Kosovo is catastrophic, [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic has only strengthened his position and the North Atlantic alliance showed its complete inability to solve such conflicts,” he told a Russian daily (Reuters, March 24). Lukin’s comments paralleled some of the soul-searching generated in the West by the first anniversary of the air campaign, and his condemnations mirrored those of critics of the Clinton administration.

Friday’s anti-NATO demonstrations came only a day after the Russian government itself launched several new broadsides lambasting the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for example, charged in a statement released to the press that the UN secretariat and civil administration in Kosovo–known as UNMIK–was failing to establish law and order in the province. More to the point, perhaps, the Russian Foreign Ministry also announced that Moscow was withdrawing from an agreement by which it was to join an international police force to be sent to Kosovo. The Foreign Ministry statement complained that “on the one hand, attention is continually drawn to the fact there is a critical lack of policemen [in Kosovo], [but] on the other, the reception of Russian Interior Ministry workers in the UNMIK special policy group has been delayed for several months.” The statement also charged bluntly that the “responsibility for the unsatisfactory situation” in Kosovo “rests wholly and fully with the current leadership of the UN Mission in Kosovo” (Reuters, Russian agencies, March 23).

The Foreign Ministry’s direct criticism of UNMIK was echoed if anything in even harsher terms by the Russian Defense Ministry. In comments of his own to reporters, Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the notorious hardline head of the Defense Ministry’s international relations department, accused UNMIK head Bernard Kouchner of deliberately failing to fulfill the UN resolution (No. 1244) which provides the mandate for the international mission in Kosovo. “Each step [Kouchner] takes, small or big, is aimed at securing Kosovo’s independent status. And, thanks to him and some NATO politicians today, the Albanians believe that independence is guaranteed to them,” Ivashov was quoted as saying. Russian attacks on Kouchner personally, it might be worth noting, appear to be growing more intense. While it is too early to say definitively, the pattern of personal attacks appears to be shaping up in a fashion similar to that which Moscow used in 1998-1999 against Richard Butler, who was then head of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq. Intense and unremitting Russian attacks on Butler were a factor in the Australian diplomat’s eventual removal from his post.

Both the Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries, which do not always speak in one voice on Kosovo, also warned anew on March 23 that Moscow is considering withdrawing its 3,600-strong contingent from the peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told a Russian TV station that Moscow does not intend to withdraw its forces right now. But he warned that “if our voice is not heeded and the developments in Kosovo unfold according to a worst-case scenario, we will of course be unable to keep our contingent there and witness the splitting of a country in the center of Europe.” Ivashov had what may perhaps be even more unsettling news. He suggested to reporters that Russia is currently pondering the creation of a “repair shop in Kosovo to service the Russian military equipment” there. The Russian general provided no details, and said that the “issue of a [Russian] military base in Kosovo is not under discussion.” He nevertheless said that the issue will be “resolved between Moscow and Belgrade on a bilateral basis.” He did not make clear whether Moscow would also consult with NATO over establishment of the repair facility (Reuters, Russian agencies, March 23).

Russia’s relations with Belgrade are nevertheless not without their own ambiguities and tensions. That was also demonstrated on March 24 when Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Russia, Borislav Milosevic (the brother of the Yugoslav president), told a news conference that Belgrade had expected more help from Russia during the NATO air war against Yugoslavia. “It’s true that our people expected more [from Russia] in terms of concrete military action, and economically and perhaps some other things,” Milosevic told reporters. He also suggested that Belgrade had bent to the international peace efforts which brought an end to the Kosovo conflict in part due to Russian backing for the plan (Reuters, March 25). Milosevic’s remarks were a reminder that the Russian government had not delivered military aid or material to Yugoslavia during Belgrade’s conflict with NATO, despite calls by Russian communists and nationalists for Russia to involve itself on Belgrade’s side. Since the end of the conflict, moreover, Moscow has continued to observe international sanctions against Belgrade, and, despite some promises to the contrary, has actually provided little in the way of economic assistance to Yugoslavia.

Moscow was also the target of a stinging attack by a Yugoslav lawmaker earlier this month. On March 14 Yugoslav parliamentary deputy Milutin Stojkovic accused Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov of being a “meddler” who has worked against Serbian interests. Stojkovic, who is a member of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party, was apparently upset by comments made by Ivanov during talks with EU and US diplomats in Lisbon earlier this month. Stojkovic’s remarks came during a meeting with visiting Russian lawmakers and were carried by state-run television. “If the diplomacy of Mr. Ivanov consists of fawning over the Americans, he may do so at the expense of Russian–not Serbian–national interests,” Stojkovic was quoted as saying. It is not clear whether Stojkovic’s remarks reflect unhappiness in Belgrade over the Kremlin’s recent decision to mend fences with NATO (AP, March 15).

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