Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 5 Issue: 7


The Kosovo crisis continued to dominate Russian diplomacy over the past fortnight, as Moscow maintained both its furious criticism of NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia and its insistence that the West turn to diplomacy to resolve the conflict. In an apparent effort to avoid a significant rupture with the West, however, the Russian government has at times moderated its rhetoric with regard to Kosovo. It has, at the same time, stopped short of taking any practical measures–particularly of a military nature–which would bring it into direct conflict with the West. A host of Russian communist and nationalist political groupings, nevertheless, have continued to press the government to offer military aid directly to Belgrade. Russian military leaders have in general towed the government’s line, but have also repeatedly indicated that the Russian armed forces are poised to help Yugoslavia should the order come from the Kremlin.

On the rhetorical front, the level of invective directed by Moscow at NATO has at times reached extraordinary depths. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has taken the lead in this effort. Ivanov has, among other things, charged that NATO is committing “genocide” in Yugoslavia and is seeking to exterminate the Serbs as a people. He has also accused the West of having plotted earlier with Kosovo Albanian rebels to create the current crisis in the Balkans, and to be using the crisis in order to establish NATO hegemony in the region. In addition, Ivanov has, for all practical purposes, ignored evidence of massive Serb atrocities in Kosovo. Amid Western reports of a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign by Serb forces in Kosovo, Ivanov has instead accused the Kosovo Liberal Army (KLA) of unleashing a large-scale “terrorist” campaign across all of Kosovo. Like a host of other Russian political figures, he has joined Belgrade in charging that NATO air strikes–and not Serb military operations–are the primary cause of a mounting humanitarian disaster in the region.

>From a practical standpoint, Russia’s actions relative to the Kosovo conflict have not matched its rhetoric. Russia’s Defense Ministry continued over the past fortnight to sever its military ties with both NATO and the Western countries participating in the air campaign against Yugoslavia. The Russian navy also dispatched one naval reconnaissance vessel to the Mediterranean to monitor NATO forces there, and threatened to send a half dozen other ships to the region. In addition, the armed forces carried out a series of military exercises across Russia, while Defense Ministry leaders hinted darkly that these were connected to the Balkans crisis. On April 7 Defense Minister Igor Sergeev warned that Russia is considering both an increase in defense spending and changes in its military downsizing plans as a response to the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia. He failed to say how the cash-strapped Russian government would find the extra funds for the military, or how the Defense Ministry leadership would manage suddenly to reverse the Russian armed forces long decline as a fighting force.


Diplomatically, Russia took a number of steps aimed at stopping the NATO strikes on Yugoslavia. None of them appeared to bear much fruit. Early on in the crisis Russia attempted twice to introduce UN Security Council resolutions that would halt the NATO actions. Both efforts were rebuffed. Then, on March 30, the Russian prime minister and a bevy of top Russian defense and security officials traveled to Belgrade for talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The Russian delegation won only a handful of minor concessions from Belgrade, and these were promptly rejected by the West. Later, Moscow warmly embraced a ceasefire offer from Milosevic, describing it as another opportunity to return to diplomacy to resolve the crisis. But the West dismissed the ceasefire offer from Belgrade and stepped up its bombing campaign. Moscow’s broader efforts to exploit tensions within NATO and to whip up international opposition to the NATO air strikes appeared to founder on the horror that was induced throughout much of the world by news reporting of the brutal Serb military actions in Kosovo.

More broadly still, diplomatic developments relating to Kosovo and the outpouring of anger in Russia over its inability to influence the conflict appear to reflect Moscow’s relative impotence on the international stage. At a time of economic crisis at home, Moscow is in no position to risk a rupture with the Western countries to whom it has turned for desperately needed financial assistance. Simultaneously, the disaster which has befallen Russia’s armed forces has undermined Moscow’s threats of a possible military response to Western actions in the Balkans. For all of that, however, Russia remains a potentially disruptive force with regard to events in Kosovo, and a country which could still complicate the already difficult task faced by the West in its efforts to impose an acceptable peace on hardline forces in Belgrade.


The fortnight in Russia’s domestic politics was, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by the start of NATO’s military actions in Yugoslavia. The Western alliance’s bombing campaign, in fact, initially appeared to give President Boris Yeltsin some relief from events at home, such as the probe by Yuri Skuratov, Russia’s resurrected prosecutor general, into alleged Kremlin corruption. That case even saw prosecutors, reportedly acting on information provided by Swiss chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, seizing documents from offices located within the hallowed grounds of the Kremlin. The Moscow rumor mill portrayed a presidential administration in total disarray, with insiders like First Deputy Administration Chief Oleg Sysuev on the verge of jumping ship.

The Yugoslav events at least gave Yeltsin a chance to turn the spotlight away from that dismal subject during his annual State of the Nation address to the State Duma. Yet the NATO actions appeared simultaneously to strengthen the Kremlin’s leftist opponents like Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). That, at any rate, was the way liberals such as Yegor Gaidar were viewing it. Perhaps the biggest winner from developments in the Balkans was Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who got the chance to play diplomat in his high-profile–albeit fruitless–mission to Belgrade. Some analysts said that Primakov, whose poll numbers were increasing with each passing week, was poised to make himself Yeltsin’s heir-apparent, regardless of the head of state’s own thoughts on the matter.


Yeltsin, however, suddenly struck back. As prosecutors again showed up at the Kremlin to seize documents, and Yuri Skuratov himself sent the president a letter charging that Russian VIPs held money in Swiss banks, Yeltsin suspended Skuratov. Yeltsin also found a loyal Moscow city prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into the now-infamous video featuring “a man looking like the prosecutor general”–the Russian media’s new favorite description for Skuratov–cavorting with prostitutes. Vladimir Putin, another Yeltsin loyalist and the man now heading the Federal Security Service, announced that his experts had determined that the man on the tape did not simply look like Skuratov, but in fact was him. Putin has also been tapped by Yeltsin to head the Kremlin’s powerful Security Council.

Meanwhile, a Russian newspaper allegedly controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky reported that the prostitutes who had serviced Skuratov had done so over the course of a number of months in 1996 and 1997. These same prostitutes had also, the newspaper said, been paid a total of more than US$100,000 by the head of a bank who had been the target of a criminal investigation. Berezovsky, it is worth noting, is himself a key target of one of Skuratov’s investigators.

What now loomed, as one Russian newspaper put it, was a fight to the death between Skuratov and the Kremlin. The twice-dethroned chief prosecutor announced he would address the State Duma, and speculation reached a fever-pitch, with top communists hinting that Skuratov would name some of the twenty high Russian officials who allegedly had been found by the Swiss authorities to have stashed away US$40 billion. Skuratov, as it turned out, disappointed them.


But that was hardly the end to the drama. Suddenly, in a murky move characteristic of Russia’s ever more Byzantine court intrigues, a deputy prosecutor general seen as an ally of Skuratov and the communists ordered the arrest of Boris Berezovsky and fellow tycoon Aleksandr Smolensky, founder of SBS-Agro bank.

The initial reaction of many observers was that the arrest orders represented a counterstrike by Skuratov and his leftist allies, and a clear victory for Berezovsky’s main foe, Yevgeny Primakov. This, however, did not fully explain the turn of events. Berezovsky, who was charged with illegal business activity and embezzlement from the state airline Aeroflot, had been out of the country and had even been prevented from returning to Moscow a week before the arrest order was announced. Rumors immediately sprung up that Berezovsky had been tipped off. It thus began to look like the Kremlin itself had given a green light to a move against the two oligarchs, as a way of cleaning its own stables prior to moving against its enemies.

That interpretation would seem to explain a proliferation of reports suggesting that the Kremlin is working on a plan which includes the dismissal of Primakov’s two top leftist deputies–Yuri Maslyukov and Gennady Kulik. The same reports suggest that the Kremlin intends also to fire Primakov himself, ban the KPRF and even suspend the constitution. Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov himself charged on April 8 that the Kremlin was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency.

Whether all of this was simply the usual KPRF hysteria remains to be seen. But April 15, the day on which the Duma plans to vote on impeaching Yeltsin, could be decisive. This week, the Federal Security Service–Russia’s main counterintelligence agency–reportedly sent Duma leaders a document warning that their grounds for impeachment were legally flawed. The implications of that highly unusual move remain unclear. What does appear clear is that Russia’s unseemly and debilitating political mudslinging will continue.


The presidents of the twelve member countries held the overdue CIS summit on April 2 in Moscow. As expected, the presidents registered pro forma agreement with the release of Boris Berezovsky from the post of CIS executive secretary. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had unilaterally purged Berezovsky on March 4, acting against CIS rules and outraging most presidents. None of them defended that man of doubtful repute at the summit, but most insisted on the observance of the procedural rules which require consensus for the release and appointment of heads of CIS bodies. Berezovsky lasted only eleven months as CIS executive secretary. His relentless scheming in Russian politics and in CIS affairs made his tenure a tumultuous one which ended up weakening the CIS, contrary to the expectations of Berezovsky’s protector-turned-nemesis, Yeltsin.


The presidents unanimously accepted Yeltsin’s nomination of Yuri Yarov as the new executive secretary. Yarov will concurrently serve as chairman of the CIS Executive Committee (see below). The appointment of Yarov, a Yeltsin loyalist, was decided upon at the literal last hour, after half a dozen candidates had been tentatively considered. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma sidestepped a Russian-Belarusan offer to elevate a representative of Ukraine to the top CIS executive post. The maneuver appeared designed to bring Ukraine back to fold, indirectly saddling Kuchma with co-responsibility for an organization whose central bodies are still dominated by Moscow.

Yarov was born on April 2, 1942 in Leningrad, rose as an industrial executive there, and became Yeltsin’s representative in the city of St. Petersburg and in the Leningrad region after the August 1991 events. Yarov went on to serve as deputy prime minister of Russia in 1992-96, first deputy head of the presidential administration in 1996-98, and presidential representative in Russia’s Federation Council since December 1998. Generally considered a lackluster bureaucrat, Yarov is probably also a transitional figure at the CIS, to be replaced by whoever succeeds Yeltsin as president of Russia next year.


The summit approved an ambiguous arrangement which makes the Executive Committee (EC) a legal successor to the Executive Secretariat (ES), without abolishing the latter or clearly delimiting their respective powers. The EC is supposed to coordinate the activities of CIS bodies in Moscow and Minsk. Its mandate and actual powers are to be defined later on. A parallel decision at the summit imposed a drastic cut in the funding of the EC, ES and other CIS bodies, as well as requiring a reduction of their total staff from some 2,500 to approximately 700. If implemented, the budget and staff cuts should seriously–perhaps fatally–undermine Moscow’s ability to misuse CIS bodies for multilateral “integration” of CIS countries around Russia. The institutional downsizing of the CIS, should it proceed as announced at this summit, will require Moscow to use bilateral instruments and levers of influence with greater emphasis than has been the case.


Russia and Belarus went into the summit determined to push through an anti-NATO and pro-Serbian resolution, even if it meant violating CIS rules of procedure. During the pre-summit negotiations over the agenda, a number of countries–including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan–had exercised their right to veto the proposed discussion of a joint statement on the Serbia-NATO conflict. As a result, the item did not even figure on the official agenda. Nevertheless, the Kremlin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced on the eve of the summit that Russia and Belarus would raise the issue regardless of the official agenda; and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov inexplicably expressed his “confidence that the Presidents will condemn NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia.” Following the summit, however, Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka complained that “all but one” of the presidents had spoken against the initiative. That lone supporter was probably Tajikistan. In the event, no joint statement was issued, and most countries persisted in citing their individual positions, which in most cases differ substantially from the Russian-Belarusan stance.


On the eve of and during the summit, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan confirmed that they would not prolong their participation in the CIS Collective Security Treaty, which expires in a few weeks’ time. The Kremlin confirmed after the summit that only five countries–Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan–have signed the protocol which prolongs their participation in the treaty. The nine original signatory countries are scheduled to hold one last meeting on April 20, but every indication suggests that the decisions of Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia to quit the treaty are irreversible. Ukraine, Moldova and Turkmenistan had never signed that treaty.

Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev, moreover, criticized the Russian side for expanding its military presence in Armenia and deploying heavy armaments there, in clear violation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Aliev declared that his main purpose in attending the summit was to voice that concern. Azerbaijan, furthermore, restated its offer to send an elite platoon to the former Yugoslavia as part of the Turkish contingent under NATO command. That position prompted Lukashenka to describe Azerbaijan as “the most pro-NATO among the CIS countries.”


Aliev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian discussed the Karabakh conflict in a separate session. The Azerbaijani president pledged continued adherence to the ceasefire and to negotiations mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but rejected the Russian idea of creating a “common state” of Azerbaijan and Karabakh. Kocharian for his part argued that the “common state” represented a major retreat from the earlier goals of uniting Karabakh with Armenia or outright independence for Karabakh. The Armenian president rejected any solution based on Karabakh’s autonomy, however far-reaching, as long as Karabakh is defined as a part of Azerbaijan. “There can be no concession here,” Kocharian stated after the session. He was the only one of the twelve presidents to dissent from the pledge to respect the territorial integrity of states and inviolability of their borders–a principle which all the other presidents wrote into the summit’s otherwise vague, declarative “concluding” document.

Baku’s resistance to a “common state” indirectly helped two other countries represented at the CIS summit: Georgia, which has been under Russian pressure to accept that scheme in Abkhazia, and Moldova, which has undermined its own negotiating position after accepting the “common state” in a key document on the principles of settling the Transdniester conflict.

Emerging from the closed-door meeting of the heads of state, Yeltsin ostentatiously embraced Kocharian, notwithstanding the latter’s challenge to a principle deemed sacrosanct by all CIS leaders. In Baku, Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Blokhin just as demonstratively told the local press that Russia is within its rights to supply arms to Armenia and station troops there, particularly since Armenia was loyal to the CIS Collective Security Treaty while Azerbaijan was not. The Russian ambassador, moreover, chastised Baku for inching closer to NATO and for supporting the latter’s actions in Yugoslavia. Blokhin went so far as to publicly advise Baku to take Russia’s nuclear strike capabilities into account when making decisions on Azerbaijan’s relations with NATO and with Russia.


This summit offered Russia a last chance to keep Georgia in the CIS Collective Security Treaty by means of a deal with Tbilisi over Abkhazia. The deal would have entailed Russian military support for repatriating to Abkhazia the Georgian expellees, in order to reverse the ethnic cleansing conducted by Abkhaz and Russian forces in 1993. Moscow passed up the chance just as it had at previous summits. Although Georgia had left the door ajar to such a deal, it upped the ante out of Moscow’s reach by demanding compensation for the military hardware evacuated by Russia from Georgia unlawfully after 1991, worth US$8 billion by Georgian estimates. This unfulfillable demand suggested that Tbilisi had already decided to quit the Collective Security Treaty, irrespective of Moscow’s position on Abkhazia.

The summit produced yet another document in the series of nonbinding and unenforceable Russian-Georgian documents which declare support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, the repatriation of refugees and other unhonored principles and goals. Georgia agreed to prolong the mandate of “CIS peacekeeping troops” until April 2, 1999, that is, until the date of the summit. That 1,600-strong, purely Russian force had lacked a legal mandate since late 1997. The April 2, 1999 decision might be interpreted as legalizing that operation retroactively up to that date, but not thereafter; the decision would seem to mean that the Russian troops presence in the area has already become technically unlawful.

The document includes an agreement “in principle” that either of the parties to the conflict would be entitled to “raise the issue of,” or “call for,” terminating the Russian peacekeeping operation in six months’ time or at any point thereafter. Abkhazia is being “insistently urged to positively resolve” the repatriation issue–a wording that does nothing to lift the five-year old, Russian-abetted Abkhaz veto on the repatriation of the Georgian refugee population.

The Russian side, however, hinted during the discussions that it might agree to a peace-enforcement operation meeting Georgian terms, if Tbilisi agrees to the deployment of additional Russian troops and gives up the goal of internationalizing the peacekeeping operation.

During the summit, Yeltsin renewed his call to all CIS countries to consider ways to support a purely CIS peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia. The proposal seeks not only to enlist contributions in manpower and materiel, but to claim for the CIS the status of a “regional organization” entitled to organizing its own peacekeeping operations under Russian leadership. Only Belarus responded to the Russian call, and only in terms of providing equipment, not troops. The documents and discussions illustrated the absence of the rule of law in intra-CIS relations and the risks inherent in CIS security arrangements. This situation vindicates Georgia’s quest for security arrangements outside the CIS.