Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 125

Moscow rejoined long-time allies Belgrade and Beijing on June 23 when Russia’s UN ambassador denounced efforts to ban representatives of Yugoslavia from Security Council meetings and then stormed out of a debate on the Balkans for precisely that reason. The same Security Council session also witnessed a walkout by Chinese envoy Shen Guofang, though he was protesting not Belgrade’s exclusion, but remarks by EU foreign and security policy chief–and former NATO secretary general–Javier Solana. The walkouts (Shen was there for the debate on Balkan policy) marked a tumultuous and acrimonious session that signaled ongoing deep differences between Security Council members over UN policy toward Belgrade. The Russian move seemed also to further reflect what has come to be seen as some ambivalence in Moscow’s position of late toward the Yugoslav government. Russia had been President Slobodan Milosevic’s most steadfast foreign supporter, but in recent weeks Russian officials had seemed to distance themselves a bit from the Yugoslav strongman while also differentiating Moscow’s stance from that of Beijing (Reuters, June 23; AP, June 24; Russian agencies, June 26).

Indeed, if U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke is to be believed, then Russia may have moved deliberately on Friday to provoke the confrontation in the Security Council. The U.S. ambassador told reporters that he had managed over the past nine months to quietly persuade others on the council to bar Yugoslav ambassador Vladislav Jovanovic from addressing the body. But Russian UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov apparently chose on Friday to force the issue by demanding a vote on the U.S.-led effort to exclude Jovanovic from the latest debate on the Balkans. The Russian move was defeated by a vote of 7-4. Afterward Holbrooke was quoted as saying that the “Russians in effect triggered this fight by raising the issue.” He also announced that the United States was launching an “all-out effort to dislodge Yugoslavia from the United Nations” altogether (Washington Post, June 24). That effort, based on the fact that Belgrade’s UN membership has been in a sort of limbo since the early 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia ceased to exist, seems sure to raise new tensions between the United States and Russia.

Moscow based its case last Friday on two notions: that the UN Charter protects the rights of states to be present when they are party to a Security Council discussion, even when those states are not UN members; and that moves to bar Belgrade from discussions of the Balkans makes little sense anyway because its involvement is crucial to solving problems in the region. On the first score, Lavrov charged on June 23 that the exclusion of Belgrade had set a “very dangerous precedent” and that “gagging people’s mouths is not the best way to discuss acute international problems.” On the second, he was quoted as saying that “to discuss the Balkan problem without Yugoslavia is nonsense” (Reuters, June 23; AP, June 24; Russian agencies, June 26). That last position accords with earlier and frequent Russian criticism of Western efforts to isolate the federal authorities in Belgrade. Moscow has rejected the argument that the international community ought not to deal with Milosevic because he has been indicted on war crimes charges by the international tribunal in The Hague. Indeed, earlier last week Lavrov accused the tribunal of being politically biased against the Serbs and criticized it for not prosecuting NATO for harming civilians in Serbia during its bombing campaign last year (see the Monitor, June 21).

Russian officials have criticized Milosevic in recent weeks and have signaled their willingness to work with his political opponents. The seeming emergence of a new pragmatism in the Kremlin on this score appeared also to be reflected in reports that Moscow is cooperating with the United States on a tentative plan that could, if reports are to be believed, ultimately see Milosevic give up the presidency in return for immunity from prosecution (see the Monitor, June 14, 20).

But Moscow appears this week to have taken a new step which could reignite some tensions between Russia and the West over Yugoslavia. Reports yesterday said that a high-level Yugoslav military delegation was due to arrive in the Russian capital that day in order to launch a five-day visit. The group, which is reportedly led by Yugoslav Air Force chief General Spasoie Smilianic, is to visit Russian arms factories, the Russian air force academy and the cosmonaut training center. The delegation will also reportedly hold talks with top Russian military personnel. Russian military officials were quoted yesterday as saying that Moscow is looking to develop military ties with Belgrade, but without violating the UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia (AFP, June 26).

But whatever Moscow’s real intentions, the visit by the Yugoslav military delegation is sure to remind Western observers of Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic’s visit to Russia this past May. That visit provoked an outcry from the West because of Ojdanic’s status as an indicted war criminal and Moscow’s obligation therefore to arrest him. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in an effort to quell international protests, apologized for the Ojdanic visit and tried to write if off as some sort of bureaucratic mix-up. It seems likely this time as well that at least some observers will try to tie the arrival of the Yugoslav military mission to the machinations of hardliners in the Defense Ministry, who remain supportive of Milosevic and are believed to be uncomfortable with the Kremlin’s more pragmatic efforts to improve ties with the West.