Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 126

Yesterday’s developments in Moscow came a day after Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin signed a decree allocating responsibilities for the Kosovo mission among government ministries (Russian agencies, June 28). Stepashin’s decree appeared to end the formal procedures required by Russia to send troops to the Balkans. That process began last week when President Boris Yeltsin sent a formal request to Russia’s upper house of parliament–the Federation Council–to approve the dispatch of the Russian troops. Following discussions of the peacekeeping mission on June 24 by several parliamentary committees, the Federation Council overwhelmingly approved the measure on June 25. No votes were recorded against the measure; there were three abstentions. Under Russia’s constitution, the Federation Council must authorize any dispatch of Russian troops abroad (Reuters, Russian agencies, June 25).

The overwhelming support for the troop deployment among the regional leaders who sit on the Federation Council was not entirely expected. Although most observers had anticipated that the measure would win quick approval, small rumblings of opposition had arisen prior to the June 25 vote, and at least one report suggested that the measure might face some tough sledding. At its June 24 meeting, for example, the International Affairs Committee reportedly failed to reach a conclusion on the troop deployment request. More generally, the regional leaders were said to have questions both about the cost of the Kosovo mission–they wanted to make no contribution from regional budgets–and about the benefits that the mission would bring. In an obvious reference to Moscow’s strong pro-Serb stance, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov made the additional argument that Moscow’s role in Kosovo could ultimately undermine the Russian state. He observed that 30 million Russian citizens have some Islamic heritage, and suggested that they could only resent the Kremlin’s current policies in the Balkans (Center TV, June 24).

In the end, Russia’s foreign and defense ministers–Igor Ivanov and Igor Sergeev, respectively–apparently convinced the lawmakers to support the troop deployment. Their success seems to have been based in part on a pledge that funding for the mission–estimated at US$69 million for the first year–would come from federal (and not regional) budgets. Of at least equal importance, however, were the arguments of Ivanov and Sergeev that Russia’s geostrategic interests would be served by its presence in Kosovo. “The Balkans always were, are and will remain a region of strategic and geopolitical interest” for Russia, Ivanov was quoted as saying. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov made much the same point, saying in televised remarks that “If we had not approved this operation, [Russia] would have left the Balkans forever–a region where we have centuries-old interests” (Reuters, June 25). Ultimately, the Russian lawmakers may simply not have wanted to swim against the stream of elite opinion in Russia. It has been overwhelmingly pro-Serbian and has tended to criticize the Kremlin for not doing enough to protect the interests of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Those interests have been equated with Moscow’s own.

If elite opinion in Russia has been positively jingoistic in its support both for Belgrade and for a strong Russian role in the Balkans, the same may not be true of average citizens. Russia’s NTV reported on June 27 that a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation had found views toward Russia’s Kosovo mission to be mixed. While nearly half of all respondents reacted positively to the surprise Russian march to Kosovo on June 12, more than half of those polled (55 percent) said that they saw no reason for allocating funds to the Russian mission. Some 72 percent said that Russian troops in Kosovo must remain neutral; only 11 percent said that the troops should concentrate on protecting Serbs. NTV did not say how many people had been polled for the survey (NTV, June 27).