Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 94

It was a day of mixed signals in Moscow as the Kremlin suggested that it was hardening its stance on Kosovo, and visiting Western officials hinted simultaneously that their talks in the Russian capital had yielded some progress. The apparent hardening in Moscow’s position was expressed both in remarks by President Boris Yeltsin and in a Foreign Ministry statement released to reporters.

In the first instance, Yeltsin was quoted as telling visiting French President Jacques Chirac that Russia would consider withdrawing from the Kosovo negotiations if NATO did not halt its bombing of Yugoslavia and if Moscow’s proposals are not taken into account by the West. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was reporting Yeltsin’s comments to reporters, added that Russia “cannot remain indifferent as NATO continues to bomb and shell the towns and villages of Yugoslavia.” Yeltsin had also warned on May 12 that Moscow was losing patience with the West and might give up its role as a mediator of the Kosovo conflict.

A sharply worded Russian Foreign Ministry statement, carrying a similar message, was issued following talks in Moscow between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and top Russian officials. The statement said that the Russian side had firmly told the Americans that “talks must not be held for the sake of talks, especially amid unrelenting pressure from NATO and the continuation of the bombing of the territory of Yugoslavia by the alliance’s forces.”

Despite the warnings and admonitions, however, Chirac suggested yesterday that his talks in Moscow had been successful and that the two sides had made some progress in ironing out differences. “It is not impossible,” he said, “that the next few days will show that things are moving, and moving in the right direction, meaning in the direction of peace. I hope so, but alas I cannot guarantee it.” Chirac also emphasized that he saw no practical evidence indicating that Russia was considering pulling out of negotiations aimed at brokering a Kosovo peace settlement.

Talbott also appeared to downplay the latest warnings from the Russians that they might pull out of the peace negotiations, though he conceded that differences remained between Moscow and the West. Talbott had been in Moscow on May 12 for talks with Russian officials, and had returned for additional consultations yesterday after a brief visit to Helsinki and a meeting with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, May 13; International Herald Tribune, May 14).

Meanwhile, Chernomyrdin, Russia’s special envoy for the Balkans, departed yesterday for Helsinki and his own talks with Ahtisaari. The Finnish president has been named as the European Union envoy for the Kosovo conflict and, with Russian and U.S. support, appears to be emerging as a possible new key player in the peace talks. His role could become especially important if Russia’s deepening domestic upheaval undermines the country’s ability to operate as a mediator in the conflict, as many expect may happen.