Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 192

The indecisiveness of Russian policy toward Yugoslavia, so evident in the days which followed the country’s disputed September 24 election, has continued in the wake of newly elected President Vojislav Kostunica’s formal assumption of authority on October 7. And its erratic aspect has in fact been highlighted over the past week, as what was expected to have been a sharp exchange between Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian lawmakers over developments in Belgrade largely failed to materialize. Russia’s elites turned instead to frenetic public debate of the crisis in the Middle East and Russia’s diplomatic role in that conflict (Russian agencies and media, October 13).

The unfocused nature of Russian policy toward Yugoslavia, long considered Moscow’s most reliable ally in the Balkans, has contrasted in recent days with that of the European Union and the United States, each of which has moved steadily along the difficult path of rebuilding ties with Belgrade. These latest developments appear to illustrate anew that Moscow is paying at least some political cost for its failure to support Kostunica earlier. It appears also to raise the odd possibility–which earlier would have been thought unlikely–that Russia’s involvement in Yugoslavia’s rebuilding could ultimately depend in part on Western actions on behalf of Moscow.

As has been reported earlier, many in Moscow looked at the situation developing in Belgrade several weeks ago and saw the political standoff there as a golden opportunity for Russian diplomats. These observers saw the West as an impotent bystander in the Yugoslav struggle, and believed that the competing political groupings in Belgrade would ultimately be compelled to turn to Moscow as a mediator. And that, they felt, would open the door to greater Russian influence in the Balkans and to a renewed prestige for Moscow as an international peacemaker.

Moscow’s calculations began to fall apart, however, as Kostunica’s adroit use of his movement’s popular support began to knock the pins out from under the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. At the critical point Moscow failed to comprehend the rapidly changing correlation of forces, and its hedging and cautious resort to legalisms alienated the Kostunica camp while doing nothing to save Milosevic. The Kremlin hastily dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade on October 5 to repair the damage, but his meeting with Kostunica the following day was reported to have been a cool one (see the Monitor, October 6). According to the Washington Post, Moscow compounded its early failure to back Kostunica when Ivanov said at a news conference in Belgrade that Milosevic–with whom he met during his visit–intended to continue playing an important role in Yugoslav politics. That remark reportedly incensed Kostunica’s aides, one of whom was quoted as saying that “we don’t feel we owe anything to Moscow now” (Washington Post, October 14).

What is interesting is the very different reception which Ivanov’s performance in Belgrade got back in the Russian capital. There, pro-Milosevic forces in the Russian State Duma criticized Ivanov and the Foreign Ministry not for moving too slowly in embracing Kostunica’s electoral victory, but for failing to stand by Milosevic and the rulings of the federal election commission that the Yugoslav strongman controlled. Indeed, there were accusations that Ivanov had somehow exceeded his authority during his visit to Belgrade by offering what was in fact a very tepid endorsement of Kostunica’s victory. Aleksei Mitrofanov, deputy chairman of the LDPR, said the Duma should appeal to President Vladimir Putin to make some personnel changes in the Foreign Ministry in order to address its “strange and illogical actions” in Yugoslavia. Among other things, Mitrofanov expressed his bewilderment at Ivanov’s move to back not the decisions of the Yugoslav Constitutional Court, but the “demands of the mob” (Segodnya, October 11; Russian agencies, October 10).

Mitrofanov’s comments were reminiscent of those uttered a few days earlier by Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov. He said that the popular protests in Belgrade smelled of “marijuana, vodka and dollars” (Moscow News, October 7). Both Mitrofanov and Zyuganov, moreover, were reflecting a point of view which was also said to have been expressed within the government itself by hardline forces, particularly from the armed forces. Some reports suggested that this clash of views helped to hamstring Russia’s reaction to events in Belgrade and produced the weak-kneed response that angered both Kostunica and Western governments seeking Milosevic’s ouster (Reuters, October 5; AP, October 5).

Ultimately, however, the hardliners’ attack on the Foreign Ministry fizzled and a meeting between Duma members and Ivanov–which was to have been devoted to Russian policy in the Balkans–appeared to focus instead largely upon developments in the Middle East. Indeed, Ivanov appears not to have been contradicted when he proclaimed to lawmakers that Russian policy toward Yugoslavia had been “clear, intelligible and without hesitations or ambiguities”–that is, everything that it was not. In the end, Russian lawmakers did what they so often do: adopted a nonbinding mainly symbolic document which will have little impact on policy. The document–an appeal to the parliaments of European states–called for strict observance of Belgrade’s sovereignty over Kosovo and for a full lifting of the sanctions against Yugoslavia. It also repeated now-standard Russian criticisms of both the UN civil administration in Kosovo and the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 14; Russian agencies, October 13). Moscow has long disputed the war crimes charges lodged against Milosevic and other leading Serb officials.

The Duma’s appeal on Yugoslavia, like the actions of the government vis-a-vis Belgrade earlier, suggest that many in Moscow remain a step behind the changes engulfing Yugoslavia. That appears to be true of much Russian media reporting as well. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Moscow has therefore been reassured to hear recent statements by Kostunica to the effect that he is not pro-American and that democratic Serbia’s desire to join the European integration process does not mean it wants to break its ties with Russia (Itar-Tass, October 13). In the same vein, Russian arms officials are said to be optimistic that the lifting of sanctions against Belgrade will open the door to lucrative Russian arms dealings in Yugoslavia. Moscow is also hoping to gather up some of the reconstruction money that the EU is offering to Yugoslavia (Vedomosti, October 10). Whether deals of this sort materialize in a meaningful way for Moscow remains to be seen. What is perhaps most important at this point, however, is the degree to which the Russian government is willing to embrace Yugoslavia’s new president. Kostunica is far from consolidating power in Belgrade, and Moscow–or hardline groups in Russia–could yet cause some mischief by making common cause with Serbia’s pro-Milosevic forces.