Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 98

Officials from both the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and the Clinton administration in Washington have expressed outrage in recent days over last week’s clandestine visit to Moscow by Yugoslav Defense Minister General Dragoljub Ojdanic. The Yugoslav general, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the tribunal, was warmly welcomed in Moscow and not only met with top Russian Defense Ministry and General Staff officers during his visit, but also stood with other foreign officials to observe a Russian military parade on Red Square (see the Monitor, May 16). Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and authorities in Moscow were therefore obliged to detain Ojdanic as a war crimes suspect.

Ojdanic’s visit, moreover, was followed by two days of talks in Moscow this week between top Russian officials and Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic. Moscow consistently backed Belgrade and stridently criticized NATO policy in the Balkans. But these most recent developments–and Ojdanic’s visit in particular–raise questions as to whether the newly installed presidential administration of Vladimir Putin is now seeking to engage the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on a more concrete basis. Milosevic has also been indicted on war crimes charges by the UN tribunal.

Protests in The Hague this week came first from the office of Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Paul Risley, a spokesman for del Ponte, told reporters on May 15 that del Ponte would likely ask “the Russian embassy in the Hague directly whether the reports [of Ojdanic’s visit] are accurate and why Russian authorities did not take any steps to arrest a person under indictment by the tribunal.” Risley described Ojdanic’s presence in the Russian capital as a “remarkable occurrence” and told reporters that, to his knowledge, it is “the first time any of the individuals indicted last May 26… have traveled outside Yugoslavia.” Judge Claude Jorda, the French president of the fourteen-judge tribunal, expressed similar sentiments on May 17. He was reported to be “very concerned” by the visit and, according to a spokesman, intended to seek a “clarification and explanations on what would appear to be a significant issue of noncompliance.” The spokesman also made clear that copies of an international arrest warrant for Ojdanic had been sent to all Security Council members and that it is therefore “not accurate to claim that they were unaware Ojdanic had been indicted” (Reuters, May 16; AP, May 17).

Washington likewise criticized Moscow this week for the Ojdanic visit and said that it was urgently seeking an explanation from the Russian government. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described the incident as “very deeply dismaying” and, like officials in the Hague, also spoke of Moscow’s full awareness of the Yugoslav general’s status and its corresponding obligation to arrest him. He said that the U.S. side would raise the issue in the run-up to next month’s summit in Moscow between the Russian and U.S. presidents (AP, May 16; AFP, May 17).

At least some sources in Moscow, however, went out of their way yesterday to dismiss such concerns. Russian news agencies quoted unnamed “military-political sources” as saying that Moscow does not recognize decisions taken by the UN war crimes on the former Yugoslavia. The same sources also said that Russia continues to view Yugoslavia as a sovereign state and would not shy away from further developing relations with Belgrade–“including in the military area.” The sources nevertheless said that Russia would observe UN sanctions against Belgrade (Russian agencies, May 17). There has been considerable political pressure in Russia over the past year to offer military aid or to sell weaponry to Yugoslavia. Moscow appears thus far to have desisted, but Ojdanic’s visit and, particularly, his talks with senior Russian military officials are sure to raise new questions about Russian-Yugoslav defense cooperation.

Meanwhile, there was at least some evidence this week of official confusion in Moscow over Ojdanic’s visit. According to the Washington Post, a spokesman for the Kremlin tried to distance President Vladimir Putin from Ojdanic’s Moscow talks. He said that Putin’s office had “nothing to do” with the visit and that he could not “comment on why [Ojdanic] was not detained. Call the Foreign Ministry,” he was quoted as saying. But a Foreign Ministry spokesman also had no answers, saying similarly that he had “no information” regarding who had invited Ojdanic or why he was not arrested. Russian Defense Ministry officials, who were presumably best positioned to answer such questions, also had nothing to say (Washington Post, May 17).

Against this background, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic’s two days of talks in the Russian capital were almost anticlimactic. Jovanovic met during his stay with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Economics Minister Andrei Shapovalyants, as well as with Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev. The talks with Shapovalyants produced perhaps the most tangible result: The Russian minister said that Moscow is prepared to extend a US$102 million loan to Belgrade and that it would also provide Yugoslavia with US$32 million in oil products. The two sides are meanwhile reportedly also considering a draft law that would liberalize bilateral trade.

Aside from that, much of the rhetoric heard during Jovanovic’s stay in Moscow matched that which has been voiced by the two countries over the past year. The Yugoslav minister spoke of Belgrade’s partnership with Russia, described Moscow as an “ally” of Yugoslavia, and expressed Belgrade’s continuing interest in joining the Russia-Belarus Union. Both sides, meanwhile, continued to speak of their common views on the Kosovo conflict, and Ivanov renewed his criticism of Western efforts to isolate Yugoslavia. In that context, he also repeated earlier Russian calls for Belgrade to be included in all international efforts aimed at restoring “stability and security” in the Balkans. Diplomatic sources again suggested that a visit by Putin to Belgrade was a possibility, but it remained unclear whether there was any serious interest in this idea on the Russian side (Reuters, AP, Itar-Tass, RIA, May 16).