Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 147

Despite assurances voiced in Singapore and Washington this week that Moscow and the West have managed to put the Kosovo conflict behind them, tensions continue to fester on a number of related issues. With regard to the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Kosovo, for example, a top Russian commander charged on July 28 that alliance commanders are impeding the proper deployment of Russian troops in the devastated province. Colonel General Georgy Shpak, who commands Russia’s airborne forces, accused NATO leaders of failing to live up to agreements reached in Helsinki and Moscow which laid out the terms under which Russian troops would serve in the international force. He said that Moscow would not agree to any changes in those agreements (AFP, July 29; Russian agencies, July 28).

Unnamed Russian Defense Ministry sources spoke in similar terms on July 28. Despite the earlier agreements, they said, Moscow and NATO have been unable to finalize precisely where the Russian troops will be stationed. The sources told reporters that the Russian General Staff, which oversees the Russian mission to Kosovo, has been engaged in intensive consultations on the issue with NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark and that military leaders have informed the Russian Foreign Ministry of the problems they are encountering in their discussions with NATO. According to the same sources, Moscow has faced the greatest difficulty in coming to terms with the leaderships of the German and French contingents in Kosovo. The Russian side, the sources said, has reached a satisfactory agreement only with the commander of the American contingent (Russian agencies, July 28).

Russia is ultimately to have 3,600 troops in Kosovo. One contingent is stationed at the Slatina airport near Pristina, in the British sector of Kosovo, and others are being spread among the American, German and French sectors. As of July 28, Russia had reportedly managed to send just under 3,000 troops to Kosovo. Shpak told reporters that the entire Russian contingent will be in the province by August 6.

Delays in reaching decisions on the precise deployment of Russian troops–particularly with regard to the German sector of Kosovo–are probably related to the extreme enmity felt by many Kosovar Albanians toward the Russians and to NATO fears that the arrival of Russian troops could further exacerbate tensions. That is certainly true with regard to the city of Orahovac in southern Kosovo. Orahovac stood at the center of a series of massacres earlier this year in which marauding Serb forces killed men, women and children. Two of the largest mass graves discovered in Kosovo are near Orahovac. There have, moreover, been reports that large numbers of Russian mercenaries fought with Serb forces in Kosovo.

All this has left Kosovar Albanians living in and near Orahovac vehemently opposed to plans calling for Russian troops to replace the Dutch peacekeepers now in the area. Last week, when NATO commander Wesley Clark visited the town to reassure the local Albanian population, he was met with protests against the Russians and presented with a petition–signed by 25,000 people–opposing a Russian presence in the area. Local ethnic Albanians are worried that Russian forces will allow dozens of suspected war criminals, trapped by German and Dutch troops in a small ghetto in the town, to escape without capture. They also fear that the Russians will fail to protect them from intimidation by the Serbs (Daily Telegraph, July 25).

Such fears, and the parallel concerns among some NATO commanders that Russian troops will take the side of the Serb minority in Kosovo, have probably been exacerbated by the behavior thus far of at least some of the Russian troops in the province. According to one Western report, Russian troops stationed in the mainly Serbian town of Polje–about twenty miles away from Malisevo–carouse regularly and drink with local Serbs. One NATO officer stationed in the area was quoted as saying that the Russians “drink vodka at the [base] gates and sing songs loudly” with local Serbs. “They are,” he said, “less disciplined than the British or American forces in the area” (AP, July 26).