Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 116

The Russian government, which has long been the international community’s most steadfast backer of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, may be moving to distance itself somewhat from the authorities in Belgrade. That, at least, appeared to be the point of remarks critical of Belgrade made to Russian lawmakers late last week by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The remarks were surprising because they followed hard on the heels of a series of events which seemed only to underscore Moscow’s deepening friendship with the Milosevic regime. They were interesting because they came on the eve of a visit by a top Chinese leader to Belgrade, and may therefore have signaled the beginning of a divergence between Moscow and Beijing over policy toward Yugoslavia. China has joined Russia in criticizing last year’s NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia and, like Moscow, has also defended Belgrade in deliberations on the Balkans undertaken by the UN Security Council.

Ivanov’s remarks on Moscow’s policy toward Belgrade came in response to a question from communist deputies during his June 9 address to the Russian State Duma. Among other things, Ivanov appeared to lay the blame for Yugoslavia’s increasing diplomatic isolation at least partly on Milosevic. He also suggested that Belgrade’s “besieged fortress” approach to foreign policy benefits neither Yugoslavia nor Moscow-Belgrade relations. Equally important, Ivanov also criticized Milosevic for his most recent crackdown on domestic political opponents. Just as the Russian foreign minister urged Milosevic to take a more cooperative approach toward the outside world, he also called on him to open a dialogue with Yugoslav opposition groups. In what appeared to be something of a departure for Russian diplomacy, Ivanov also hinted that Moscow was now as willing to work with opposition figures–or with any future government of which they might be a part–as with the Milosevic regime. “It is important,’ he said, “that Yugoslavia remains our partner regardless of who is in power” (UPI, June 9; Reuters, June 9-10).

Growing dissonance between Moscow and Belgrade also appeared to be on display last week when, in separate remarks to reporters on June 8, Ivanov rejected calls by the Yugoslav government for a withdrawal from Kosovo of the KFOR peacekeeping force and of the UN group administering Kosovo. Ivanov, whose remarks came following talks in Moscow with Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo, said that moves to oust the UN from Kosovo “would hardly contribute to a settlement of the Kosovo problem” (UPI, Reuters, June 8-9).

The tone and substance of Ivanov’s recent remarks were unexpected because they follow what had appeared to be a new emphasis by Moscow both on strengthening ties to the Milosevic regime and on stiffening Russian opposition to Western efforts to isolate the Yugoslav president. Those policies appeared to be reflected in Moscow’s surprise dispatch of its UN ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, to Belgrade in late April. The move (Lavrov was accompanied by China’s own UN ambassador) was carried out in secret and was criticized by other UN Security Council members (see the Monitor, April 28, May 5). Soon thereafter Moscow earned even greater international opprobrium when it was learned that the Russian government had hosted a visit by Yugoslav Defense Minister–and indicted international war criminal–Dragoljub Ojdanic. Ivanov himself later offered a half-hearted apology for the incident and blamed it on a mixup within the Russian government (see the Monitor, May 16, 18, 25).

That Moscow continued to favor the Milosevic regime appeared to be further borne out, moreover, on May 30, when both Ivanov and Putin snubbed a visiting delegation of Serbian opposition figures by refusing to meet with them. Although the opposition leaders did hold talks with a Russian deputy foreign minister, their treatment in Moscow left them open to ridicule back in Yugoslavia from both the government and from other opposition groups (see the Monitor, June 1).

If Moscow is indeed moving to distance itself from the Milosevic regime, then it is apparently not acting in concert with China. Li Peng, the speaker of China’s parliament and the second-ranking member of the ruling Communist Party, arrived in Belgrade on June 11 for several days of acts aimed at further boosting ties between the Chinese and Yugoslav governments. In addition to praising the “heroic” and “unconquerable” Serbian people, Li appeared to back Belgrade’s demand for a withdrawal of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force. That appeared to contradict Moscow’s own position on the Milosevic’s government’s demand for a withdrawal of the peacekeeping mission, of which Russia is a part (International Herald Tribune, June 13; AP, Reuters, BBC, June 12).

With regard to Kosovo, however, the Chinese and Russian positions still clearly have much in common. Indeed, in his June 9 remarks Ivanov also spent some time repeating many of Moscow’s now-standard criticisms of the Western-led peacekeeping mission. He also spoke yet again against Western efforts to isolate Milosevic and against the maintenance of a sanctions regime against Yugoslavia. Russia has argued that stability cannot return to the Balkans until Belgrade is included in peacemaking efforts for the region, and Ivanov’s remarks appeared to signal that Moscow has not altered its position on that issue (Russian agencies, June 13).