Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 153

The weekend’s events in Kosovo also came as two top Russian officials castigated NATO for its conduct of the peacekeeping operation there and appeared to threaten to withdraw the Russian contingent from Kosovo. The remarks were made in Moscow on August 20 by the Foreign Ministry’s envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Boris Mayorsky, and by Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the Defense Ministry’s chief of international military cooperation. Ivashov, a notorious hardliner, has been a frequent and harsh critic of NATO and the West on a number of different issues. He is also believed to be one of those who masterminded the surprise seizure by Russian paratroopers of the Slatina airport near Pristina on June 12. Prior to that, he participated in the negotiations between Russia and the West which ultimately led to the peace settlement in Yugoslavia. Ivashov criticized the terms of the settlement, however, and accused former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin–who was then serving as the Kremlin’s special envoy for Balkans affairs–of having sold out Moscow’s and Belgrade’s interests during the negotiating process.

In their remarks on August 20, Ivashov and Mayorsky blamed NATO for the ongoing violence in Kosovo and particularly for the West’s alleged effort to grant the province full independence while ignoring the interests of Belgrade. “The U.S. and NATO are trying to establish their own order in the Balkans, excluding in the process the nations in the region,” Ivashov said. Without offering any elaboration, he and Mayorsky said that Moscow might withdraw its troops from Kosovo–or alter their role there–if conditions “take such a character that it would become unacceptable for Russia to be associated with such activities.” The two men suggested that conditions in Kosovo had not yet reached such a state (AP, Reuters, Itar-Tass, August 20; AFP, August 21).

Mayorsky also went out of his way on August 20 to underline that Moscow continues to support the government of Yugoslav President Milosevic in Belgrade. “We treat the acting government with full respect; normal contacts are maintained with it. And there are no reasons for the contacts to be broken only because other countries see the relations with Belgrade differently,” he was quoted as saying. Mayorsky did suggest, however, that Moscow would not react negatively if current political protests against Milosevic result ultimately in his “lawful” removal from power. “We will meet this turn of events with complete understanding,” he said (Itar-Tass, August 20).

Earlier this month, Moscow hosted a visit by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. He is a key critic of Milosevic and a leader whose political agenda and pro-Western orientation threaten both to further fracture Yugoslavia–something which causes considerable consternation in Moscow–and to pull the region farther out of Russia’s orbit. Djukanovic’s visit was interpreted by many in Moscow as an indication that the Kremlin was at last abandoning Milosevic and attempting to reconcile with both the West and the anti-Milosevic opposition in Yugoslavia (see the Monitor, August 4).

Mayorsky’s remarks on August 20 suggest, however, that Moscow has not yet given up on Milosevic. The same impression was conveyed by newly named Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on August 15 (while still acting prime minister). Putin said then that, while Moscow intended to cooperate with NATO, it would nevertheless maintain its ties to Yugoslavia. “Yugoslavia is our strategic partner, and we will maintain these relations,” he said. “We have our own geopolitical interests, which we will protect” (AP, August 15). While that was not an explicit statement of Moscow’s continuing endorsement of Milosevic, it implied as much. Indeed, the earlier suggestion of an about-face in Moscow’s policy toward Belgrade appeared to have been the work of then-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. He is now gone, and it remains to be seen where Putin will take Russian policy toward the Balkans.