Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 100

In a sidebar to the weekend’s diplomatic developments, official Moscow found itself scrambling to explain how a Russian national apparently came to be among a group of Serb soldiers killed in Kosovo last week. Kosovo rebels claimed on May 20 to have killed some thirty-three Serb soldiers and a Russian fighting alongside them during skirmishes along the Albanian-Yugoslav border. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied having any knowledge of whether Russians might be fighting in Yugoslavia. Other “diplomatic sources,” moreover, were quoted initially as characterizing the story as a provocation aimed at undermining the Kosovo peace negotiations (AP, May 20; Itar-Tass, May 21).

Documents taken by the Kosovo Liberation Army from the body of the dead Russian, however, apparently identified him as Vitaly Bulakh, a retired Russian military officer and a rescue worker. Later, moreover, Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry–which has been overseeing the dispatch of Russian aid convoys to Yugoslavia–said that Bulakh had indeed worked for the ministry. But it claimed that he had been discharged from rescue work some two years ago, and was subsequently attached to a Khabarovsk district military registration office as a retired officer. The ministry emphasized that Bulakh could not have traveled to the Balkans with any of the aid convoys sent by Russia (Russian agencies, May 21).

There have been numerous reports of Russian soldiers wanting to volunteer for service in Serbia, and at least a small number have apparently made it to the Balkans (Washington Post, May 21). The Yugoslav military command reportedly told Russia’s Itar-Tass agency on May 21 that there may indeed be Russian volunteers in Kosovo, but that their numbers are small. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, meanwhile, and the Russian government more generally, would presumably want to avoid any suggestion that the country’s humanitarian activities in Yugoslavia are being used to channel Russian volunteers to the Serb police or military forces.