Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 202

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica’s October 27 visit to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials produced little in the way of sensation, either with regard to rhetoric or to the agreements reached. Instead, the discussions appeared to be shaped by the pragmatism–evident in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres–which has characterized Kostunica’s still fledgling presidency. For reasons both economic and political, that pragmatism has driven Kostunica to reach out to Moscow for support despite the Kremlin’s well-publicized hesitancy in embracing the victory of Yugoslav opposition forces in the country’s September 24 presidential election. However, Kostunica’s appeal to Moscow differs from that of his predecessor, Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who warred with the West and made Moscow his primary foreign partner. Kostunica, by contrast, made it clear prior to his arrival in Moscow–and the point was repeated during his stay in the Russian capital–that Belgrade now hopes to balance the influence of three major players in the Balkans region: Russia, the United States and the European Union. For Moscow, that policy provides both opportunities and dangers.

That Kostunica was resolved to put Moscow’s earlier diplomatic bumbling in the past was evident during his brief but busy six-hour stint in the Russian capital. The Yugoslav president held talks not only with President Vladimir Putin, but also with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksy II. Rhetoric throughout the proceedings was friendly, with Kostunica expressing gratitude to Russian leaders (and the Russian Orthodox Church) for their consistent support of Belgrade during the NATO “aggression” against Yugoslavia. Kostunica and Putin reprised the now-standard declarations of both Russian-Yugoslav friendship and their traditional ties and common religion. Putin, for his part, appeared to acknowledge indirectly the Kremlin’s earlier failure to back Kostunica by praising him for his bloodless political victory. “Due to your efforts, restraint and aptly chosen tactics, Yugoslavia has managed to get out of the difficult situation without bloodshed,” the Russian president was quoted as saying.

In practical terms, the results of Putin-Kostunica talks were modest. The two men issued a joint declaration which embodied their common view of recent developments in the Balkans–noting that Belgrade was working to rejoin international institutions and that the main task was to get the country’s economy working again. It also declared Russia’s backing for Belgrade over Kosovo and called for an early start to negotiations over Kosovo’s status within Yugoslavia. Putin suggested that “the maintenance of Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity”–Moscow’s standard formulation for Belgrade’s continued control over Kosovo and Montenegro–constituted the “cornerstone” for peace in the Balkans. Kostunica said that the positions of Moscow and Belgrade coincide, “whether talking about sanctions, or about the problems of Kosovo, or about last year’s NATO aggression.”

The two sides also apparently made progress on working out an agreement under which Moscow will resume gas supplies to Yugoslavia. The Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Yugoslavia earlier this year on the basis of unpaid bills totaling some US$400 million. Kostunica had reportedly gone to Moscow hoping that Putin would forgive the debt. This does not appear to have happened, and reports made it clear that additional details must be worked out before the gas deliveries resume. Putin nevertheless told reporters that “we agreed with [Kostunica] that very soon Russia will reestablish energy deliveries interrupted this year to Yugoslavia, including gas supplies.” He reportedly provided no details of the plan. Yugoslavia is suffering a severe energy shortage and political leaders have said that the country needs US$600 million in energy assistance to survive the approaching winter.

A potential embarrassment in the October 27 talks was avoided when the Yugoslav ambassador to Russia–Slobodan Milosevic’s brother Borislav–was summoned back to Belgrade before Kostunica’s arrival in Moscow. Reports said that Borislav Milosevic had played no role in organizing Kostunica’s trip and suggested that the Yugoslav president did not want him to be present for the talks. News agency reports said that Borislav Milosevic was likely to be dismissed from his post, though at least one Russian newspaper speculated that his long years of experience in Russia and his intimate knowledge of Russian officials and institutions could yet make him a useful asset for the new government in Belgrade. Other reports also said that, even if dismissed, he was likely to return to Russia. Rumors persist that Slobodan Milosevic’s son Marko and his family have been residing in the ambassador’s Moscow residence since they failed to gain entry into China following the October 5 collapse of the Milosevic regime (Reuters, October 26, 28; AFP, October 27-28; UPI, BBC, AP, October 27; Russian agencies, October 27-28; Segodnya, Izvestia, October 28).