Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 107

Moscow found itself pulled deeper into Yugoslavia’s intensifying domestic political struggles this week as a delegation of Serbian opposition leaders visited the Russian capital. But the Russian Foreign Ministry’s standoffish approach to the visit appeared to signal that the Russian government is in no hurry to abandon its friendly ties with President Slobodan Milosevic. At the same time, however, Moscow appears to be moving carefully so as not to alienate the Yugoslav opposition entirely. The Russian Foreign Ministry offered the opposition leaders a bit of what they wanted–in the form of a call for Belgrade authorities to observe democratic standards–but that was about the extent of Moscow’s commitment. The opposition leaders got neither a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov–let alone with President Vladimir Putin–nor a clear signal from Moscow that it would pressure Belgrade authorities to stop their current crackdown on groups opposed to Milosevic’s policies. The opposition leaders apparently also failed to get Moscow to back their call to hold early parliamentary elections in Yugoslavia.

The Serbian delegation to Moscow was headed by Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, and included two other leading opposition figures–Zoran Djindjic of he Democratic Party and Vojislav Kostunica, who heads the Democratic Party of Serbia. The delegation arrived in Moscow on May 28 and met the next day with Russian Foreign Ministry officials, as well as with representatives of the Russian State Duma and the liberal Yabloko party. The days leading up to the visit were filled with confusion, as Moscow appeared to deny Draskovic’s claims that he had received an official invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to visit Russia. Earlier reports had also suggested that the Serbian political leaders would get an audience with Foreign Minister Ivanov–or even with Putin himself. But those reports proved unfounded. The Serbian leaders apparently traveled to Moscow unofficially at the invitation of Yabloko. They were invited to the Russian Foreign Ministry, but met with Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev rather than with Ivanov (AP, May 20, 29; UPI, May 21; AFP, May 24, 30; Reuters, May 29).

Moscow’s reception of the three Serbian leaders was ambiguous enough to allow various political groupings in Belgrade to put their own spin on the significance of the visit–and on what it said about Russia’s view of recent developments in Yugoslavia. The three opposition parties represented in Moscow were reported to have been moderately satisfied by the results of their visit, though they were plainly disappointed at not having been given a higher level reception in the Russian capital. They claimed to have been heartened, however, by the fact that all of their Russian interlocutors reportedly expressed concern over recent police attacks on demonstrators in Serbia and over the takeover by authorities of the main opposition television station, Studio B. Competing opposition groups reportedly characterized the Moscow visit as something of a fiasco, however, and suggested that it only underscored Moscow’s continuing support for Milosevic’s regime. The official news agency Tanjug likewise belittled the results of the Moscow visit, describing the unwillingness of Russia’s foreign minister to meet with the visiting delegation as a clear sign that Moscow had rebuffed the opposition’s calls for support (UPI, May 31).

A day before the talks took place between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the visiting Serbian delegation, the influential head of the State Duma’s International Relations Committee was quoted as saying that “Russia should take up a position of equal distance from both the official leadership and the Serb opposition.” However, Dmitry Rogozin went on, “Russia should not in any circumstance lose contact with people who have even a chance in a thousand of coming to power in the friendly nation which is Yugoslavia” (Reuters, May 29). Rogozin’s comments underscored the importance that Moscow attaches to maintaining close ties with Belgrade, which it sees as a key outpost of Russian influence in the Balkans.

But, the meeting in Moscow notwithstanding, it is not at all clear that the Kremlin is taking a nonpartisan approach to Yugoslavia’s internal political struggles, as Rogozin recommended. In recent weeks Moscow has defied (and outraged) the West by hosting a visit to Russia by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic, an indicted war criminal. Moscow also welcomed Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic to the Russian capital and caused something of a ruckus at the United Nations by dispatching its UN ambassador to Belgrade on a secret mission. All of these moves have suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new government is more interested in straightening ties with the current regime in Belgrade than in looking for reasons to support Serbia’s fractured and–in some cases–more pro-Western opposition.