Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

Amid the recriminations between Russia and the West over Moscow’s war in Chechnya, a visit by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev to Yugoslavia–and to Kosovo–on December 23-24 received relatively little attention in the West. The visit was a noteworthy one, however, and not only because Sergeev was the highest-ranking Russian official thus far to travel to the rebellious Yugoslav province. The visit appeared also to highlight the three principle tendencies evident in current Russian policy toward Yugoslavia. They are, first, a continued, withering criticism by Moscow of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, second, enduring efforts by the Russian government to maintain or improve on friendly relations with the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and, third, a determination to maintain those friendly ties while observing international sanctions prohibiting arms sales to Yugoslavia.

That Moscow and Belgrade are intent on maintaining friendly relations was evident during Sergeev’s first day in the region, which was spent meeting with Yugoslav officials in Belgrade. The Russian defense minister held talks with Milosevic on December 23, and also met with Yugoslav military leaders. Milosevic reportedly received Sergeev lavishly and decorated the Russian marshal with medals–for promoting cooperation between Russia and Yugoslavia and between their two armies–during a ceremony at the Yugoslav president’s residence in Belgrade. At a reception of his own, Sergeev reportedly returned the favor by bestowing awards on Yugoslav military leaders–Yugoslav army chief of staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic among them–for their “heroic defense of the country.” Like Milosevic, Ojdanic is among those who have been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, The Netherlands (AP, Russian agencies, December 24).

Agreements which Sergeev and Yugoslav army chiefs reached, however, apparently stopped short of any formal arms deals. That, at least, was the message which Yugoslav Defense Minister Predrag Bulatovic conveyed in comments published in Belgrade on December 29. According to Bulatovic, Russia and Yugoslavia had agreed during Sergeev’s visit to widen military and technological cooperation. But he said also that, due to UN sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia, “Russia has decided not to provide new weaponry for our army” (AP, December 29). Sergeev had said on the eve of his Yugoslav visit that discussions of possible arms deliveries to Belgrade were not on the agenda (UPI, December 23). Moscow’s apparent renunciation at present of arms deliveries to Yugoslavia comes despite calls within Russia for the extension of military aid to Belgrade. In remarks made on December 15, Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Moscow, Bronislav Milosevic (brother of the Yugoslav president), suggested that while the two countries are currently not discussing Russian arms sales to Yugoslavia, the issue could be broached at a later date (Russian agencies, December 15).

If the first day of Sergeev’s visit turned into something of a love-fest between the Russian and Yugoslav delegations, the temperature during the Russian defense chief’s second day in the Balkans–during which he met with various Western officials–was a good deal chillier. Sergeev held talks in Pristina with the commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, General Klaus Reinhardt, and met with German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, who was in Kosovo visiting German peacekeeping troops there. But, in keeping with Moscow’s current, truculent posture toward NATO, Sergeev reportedly made no public statements during his visit to Pristina and canceled a scheduled news conference without explanation. It is likely that he also turned down a meeting with General Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, who was in Kosovo the same day to present awards to Russian troops for assistance which they had given to American peacekeepers.

Indeed, Sergeev’s visit to Yugoslavia was emblematic of current relations between Russia and NATO. Clark and other Western officials went out of their way on December 24 to praise the Russian contingent in Kosovo and to applaud cooperation between the two sides in the Balkans. Sergeev, in contrast, when he was not snubbing Western officials, was lashing the Western alliance for its alleged failures in Kosovo. In the two days which preceded his arrival in Pristina, Sergeev charged, among other things, that KFOR had assumed a passive posture in Kosovo and that it was exerting little influence on events there. He also joined with Milosevic on December 23 in issuing a statement that attacked KFOR for failing to stop “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo. “Yugoslavia and Russia regard this state of affairs as untenable,” the statement said (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, December 24).