Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 182

As the political standoff in Yugoslavia continued over the weekend, Russia found itself at the center of both a frenetic Western diplomatic effort aimed at ousting President Slobodan Milosevic from power and a whorl of rumors suggesting that the Yugoslav strongman might be seeking refuge in Moscow. Although official sources denied the last set of rumors, the Kremlin’s precise position on the Yugoslav presidential election results remained unclear. The Kremlin had little to say on the matter officially. Instead, what was alleged to be the Russian view emerged mainly in reports of Putin’s conversations with foreign leaders. Moscow’s low-key approach to the Yugoslav election, which contrasted with strong Western calls for Milosevic to step down, seemed intended to avoid alienating either Milosevic or the Yugoslav opposition movement that has lined up behind Vojislav Kostunica. Most reports nevertheless suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was prepared to end Moscow’s long association with Milosevic, and might be persuaded to join Western moves directed in support of the Yugoslav challenger.

In practical terms, Moscow took two concrete diplomatic steps over the weekend aimed at involving itself in Yugoslavia’s political struggle. One involved an offer, which Putin made on Saturday, to send Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade to help mediate between Milosevic and the opposition. The other came yesterday, when the Kremlin dispatched two lower-level Russian diplomats–Vladimir Chizhov and Aleksandr Tolkach–to the Yugoslav capital for talks with Yugoslav leaders. The Russian moves ended nearly a week in which Moscow had focused its attentions primarily on warning the West not to interfere in the Yugoslav political crisis while urging both Milosevic and the opposition to resolve their electoral dispute on the basis of Yugoslav law.

Given Milosevic’s control over Yugoslavia’s electoral agencies and his obvious manipulation of the election results, however, that last admonition appeared inappropriate at best. It was perhaps no surprise though, in light of the fact that Putin’s own election was accompanied by considerable electoral abuses and may also have involved some manipulation of the final vote tallies. Indeed, while numerous Western governments and organizations condemned the conduct of the September 24 Yugoslav election, Russian election monitors on the ground there described the vote as fair and well run. With fifty observers, Russia had the largest observation team in Yugoslavia. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s remarks on September 26 nevertheless were an indication that Moscow might be leaning against Milosevic. Ivanov criticized Belgrade for not allowing Western monitors to observe the election, saying that the positive Russian evaluations of the vote “would carry more weight if representatives of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international organizations had been allowed to monitor the election” (Reuters, September 27).

Putin’s offer to mediate the Yugoslav election standoff, meanwhile, elicited a guarded response from the United States and an apparent rebuff from Belgrade. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright welcomed the Russian mediation offer, but said that it must include a recognition by Moscow that the opposition had won the election and that Milosevic had to relinquish power (CNN, September 30). Moscow seemed unwilling to do that, just as Belgrade seemed unwilling to welcome Ivanov. There was no official response from Milosevic’s government, but both the Yugoslav opposition and a spokesman for the Clinton administration said on Saturday that Belgrade had rejected the Russian offer. Washington reportedly got the news during a telephone conversation that day between Putin and U.S. President Bill Clinton (AP, Reuters, September 30).

Indeed, it was Putin’s talk with Clinton and, especially, a separate telephone conversation Putin had on Saturday with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, which reportedly provided the most telling evidence that the Kremlin was prepared to support the Yugoslav opposition. Putin was said during his conversation with the German leader to have “agreed that, in the election victory of Vojislav Kostunica, the will of the Serbian people for democratic change in Yugoslavia had been clearly expressed.” A German government spokeswoman reported the statement, however, and the Kremlin did not confirm it. According to a U.S. White House spokesman, Putin had agreed when Clinton said that the will of the Serbian people should be respected. Clinton’s statement was said to be reference to the U.S. position that Kostunica had won the election (BBC, Reuters, October 1).

Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports over whether one of the diplomats Moscow dispatched to Belgrade–Vladimir Chizhov–had conveyed a Kremlin warning to Milosevic against using force to stay in power. According to an independent Belgrade radio station, Chizhov also said that Moscow wanted Milosevic to agree to a comparison of the results from the September 24 election “in order to establish the real state of affairs.” A September 30 Itar-Tass report, however, said that Chizhov denied having conveyed any warning to Milosevic against the use of force (UPI, September 30, October 1). The waters were similarly muddied with regard to Moscow’s willingness to examine the election results. Opposition leaders were quoted as saying on Thursday that they had used diplomatic mail to send documentary proof of their election victory to Russia. On Friday, however, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that it had received no such documents and refused to comment on the matter (Reuters, September 29; Moscow Times, September 30).

Reports over whether Milosevic was seeking refuge in Russia also contradicted one another. A British daily on September 29 quoted a senior foreign policy official in Brussels as suggesting that Milosevic’s flight to Russia had come up during talks last week between Putin and French Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine and also several days earlier, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had traveled to Moscow. Russian officials and Vedrine himself later denied that the issue of refuge for Milosevic had come up during the meeting with Putin, however (The Guardian, September 29; Moscow Times, September 30). That did not stop another British daily, however, from speculating yesterday that Western governments may be near to agreement on a formula–to be put to Milosevic this week by the Russians–under which Milosevic could avoid prosecution for war crimes and instead be allowed to escape into exile. This latest report said that Schroeder had originally raised the issue during his talks with Putin (The Observer, October 1).