Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 13

Russia’s relations with Belgrade are far from problem-free

by Slobodan Pavlovic

This week Russia used another opportunity to demonstrate publiclyits policy differences with the major Western powers over the39 months old war in Bosnia. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev(before leaving Belgrade on July 25 after talks with the presidentof Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic) strongly indicated his oppositionto Western calls for air strikes against Serb forces in Bosniaand urged the strengthening of the U.N. forces safeguarding theceasefire, "but only in their peacekeeping capacity."

However, that wasn’t the only slap from the chief of Russiandiplomacy to his Western partners in the so-called contact groupfor Bosnia. "I am convinced that the leadership in Belgradeand President Slobodan Milosevic support a political resolutionon the question of Bosnia, although it is not a simple matter,"said Kozyrev. He underlined the notion that Russia and Serbiahave been absolutely committed to the view that the Bosnian warcan be resolved only by peaceful means, and that–bearing in mindMilosevic’s past and current efforts to extinguish war flamesin Bosnia and Croatia–the U.N. sanctions against Yugoslavia "should be lifted not gradually, but completely."

This is not the first time that Russia has objected to the useof air strikes in resolving the Bosnian conflict, nor the firsttime it used the argument that proposed military means will onlyforce the withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping force from Bosniaand Herzegovina and subsequently lead to a large-scale genocideand destruction in the former Yugoslavia. Kozyrev repeated inBelgrade Moscow’s longstanding objection that the proposal fromlast week’s conference in London "to mix-up the humanitarianand peacekeeping missions of the United Nations in Bosnia witha military confrontation would be extremely dangerous," andwarned that Russia insists that before "any air war againstBosnian Serbs," all remaining opportunities should be usedto reach a political settlement, however difficult that may be.

Before and after Kozyrev’s visit to Belgrade, the Russian parliamentattacked the U.S. and other western powers in even stronger terms,apparently because of the West’s condemnation of the BosnianSerbs and its attempt to impose a military instead of politicalsolution for one of the most serious crises in Europe since WorldWar II. Moreover, Yeltsin’s administration and his parliamentaryopposition are pointing out at great length the essence of the"traditional friendship and cooperation between the Serbianand Russian nations." The same argument is used in the Westfor preparation of plans for international engagement in the formerYugoslavia.

But how historically realistic is the so-called Moscow-Belgradealliance? To what extent can it be expected to affect furtherdevelopment of events in the Balkans?

The Myth Denied by History

The myth about the historic ethnic, religious and strategic friendshipbetween Russia and Serbia has been used regularly by the mediaand by politicians since the beginning of the crisis in the formerYugoslavia. But the historical facts are quite the opposite: duringthe last two centuries, Russia and Serbia have been allies forfewer than fifteen years.

Because of the geographical distance between Russia and the landof the South Slavs, Russian policy in the Balkans has followedits own goals, trying from time to time to make use of pan-Slavicfeelings among their "Orthodox brethren." But Moscownever supported any of the Southern Slavic nations wholeheartedly:during the 19th century for example, Russia tried to use the Serbiananti-Turkish uprising in support of its own confrontation withthe Turkish empire. But when the Russian empire’s interests wereat issue, Moscow pressed its "brothers" from Serbiaand Montenegro to make concessions to theTurkish and Austro-Hungarianempires.

Serbian uprisings against the Turks were supported by Russiantsars only when Russia was in conflict with the Turkish empire. Russia even asked the Serbs to start a war against the Turksduring the Crimean War, but the Serbs refused. After the Russo-TurkishWar of 1877, Russia supported the San Stefano peace treaty, whichwould have created a Greater Bulgarian state at the expense ofSerbia. Furthermore, Russia pressed Serbia to submit to the Austro-Hungariansphere of influence, but when, to the dismay of Serbia, Austro-Hungaryfirst annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moscow supported the empireand pressed Serbia to agree. During the second Balkan war (1913)between Serbia and Bulgaria, Russia, for all practical purposes took the side of Bulgaria, despite the fact that the Bulgarianthrone was occupied by a king from the German royal house! Duringboth world wars, Bulgaria sided with Germany against Russia.

While a real closeness existed between the Russian and SerbianOrthodox Church, in the realm of secular international politicsRussia and Serbia tried to use each other to achieve their owndomestic goals. Serbia tried to use Russia’s conflicts with theAustro-Hungarian and Turkish empires to enlarge its own territory.

Even pan-Slavic ideas took different forms in Russia and in Serbia.Russian pan-Slavism was directed against Germany, especially afterPrussia’s victorious war against Austria in 1866, while the Serbianpan-Slavism was always connected with anti-Turkish sentiment. In fact , during the 19th century Serbia got more support fromAustria against the Turkish empire than it got from Russia. Onlyat the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, whenthe Turkish empire was practically folding and Russia became alliedwith France and Britain against the rise of German power, didSerbia join this anti-German coalition.

In 1914 Russia took sides with Serbia against the ultimatum fromAustro-Hungary, thereby triggering World War I. But the friendshipended four years later with the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution.During the time of the so-called first Yugoslavia (1918-1941),there were no diplomatic relations nor cooperation between theSerbian/Yugoslav Kingdom and the USSR. It was only in 1940 thatYugoslavia finally recognized the Soviet Union–seven years afterthe United States! During World War II, the Soviet Union didnot support the Serbian nationalist forces led by General DrazaMihailovic, but rather the forces led by "their man in Yugoslavia,"communist leader from Croatia, Josip Broz Tito.

After World War II, the alliance between Moscow and Belgradedid not last more than three years. In 1948 Tito broke off relationswith Stalin, leaving the union of communist countries which theUSSR had formed and kept under strict control. During that period,Yugoslavia tried to maintain a balance between the two blocs. Because it was receiving substantial political and economic aidfrom the West, it sometimes moved closer to the West than to theEast, which had never given up its ambition to dominate Belgrade. In sum, from an historical point of view it makes more senseto speak of a Serbian-French alliance (established during twoworld wars), than of a Russian-Serbian historic friendship. Francehad a greater influence than Russia on Serbian popular culture. Indeed, for a long time, Russian culture was even less popularin Serbia than in Croatia due to Slavic resentment of the Austro-Hungarianrule there.

Yeltsin’s Calculation

Commenting on the recent London conference about the former Yugoslavia,Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev expressed the hope that "the grain of common sense sowed in London will give goodsprouts which will help promote common sense and avoid confrontation."Between the lines of this semi-poetic message could be understooda warning that the West (particularly the US) risks direct confrontationwith Russia should a military option for Bosnia still be favoredover a negotiation process. Are those challenges we now hearfrom Moscow reminiscent of the days of the cold war, or is itperhaps something else?

Verbal confrontation over Bosnia basically arises from the factthat this year and next, Russia, like the US, is in the throesof electoral campaigning, and the ailing President Yeltsin isbeing challenged by virulent nationalists like Zhirinovsky andcompany, for whom pan-Slavic solidarity with their co-religionistSerbs is an easy option. Old-fashioned Moscow communists opposingMr. Yeltsin see ample reason too to aid Milosevic’s regime inBelgrade against NATO "imperialism."

But Kremlin support for the Serbs against the West has had moreto do with Russia’s desire to project itself domestically andthroughout the world as a big, independent world power, and itsdesperation to be accepted as such, rather than with mysticalnotions of Slav brotherhood. The Bosnian Muslims and Croats areSlavs too, of course, albeit not of the Orthodox faith. So too,for example, are the Bulgarians–but they would not be alignedwith the Serbs, should battle be joined for the spoils of Macedoniain the south of the Balkan Peninsula.

So, we arrive at the answer to the basic question from the beginning:Will Russia really confront the West over Bosnia? Even now, afterthe US Senate’s decision to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia?

President Yeltsin owes nothing to the Serbian president SlobodanMilosevic nor to the Bosnian Serbs’ leader Radovan Karadzic. Indeed, the Serb regime would relish Mr. Yeltsin’s electoral fallin the hope that he would be replaced by a sympathetic, authoritariansuccessor, more anti-Western and more to its own image. But ifMoscow does not owe anything to Milosevic, Russia’s leaders clearlydo not want the "war in Bosnia" to become an issue whichcould threaten them in the upcoming parliamentary and presidentialelections.

Slobodan Pavlovic is U.S. correspondent for Yugoslav daily Borba