Soviet bear hug on Yugoslavs: economic or military?

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Although the Yugoslavs do not anticipate a direct military threat from the Russians after President Tito leaves the scene, they are very much aware of the possibilities of nonmilitary moves.

In particular, they suspect that pressures applied by Moscow in the past might be reasserted with greater energy on the assumption that without President Tito this country will prove more vulnerable. The two principla possibilities are judged here to be:

1. Efforts at economic penetration.

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2. Renewal of demands for facilities for Russian warships in Yugoslavia's Adriatic ports.

In the past such demands for port facilities have consistently been rejected. There is no reason to doubt the Yugoslavs will be as adamant in the future. Nonetheless, the Yugoslavs expect the Russians to renew their efforts and with greater force -- particularly if the present chill in East- West relations continues.

The Soviet Union's economic "wooing" of this country has been going on for some years. And the Yugoslavs are braced for this, too, to be stepped up.

In 1971, the Soviets extended credits worth nearly $1 billion for the reconstruction of some Yugoslav capital industries and development of new ones. Initially, things moved slowly because of the difficulties independent, self-managed Yugoslav enterprises had in dealing with Russia's tightly centralized economic structure. In recent years, however, Moscow seems to have gone out of its way to ease the process, and today the 1971 credits have all been virtually taken up.

The Russians have been politically selective. They have shown little interest in the advanced and relatively prosperous republics of Slovenia and Croatia (both of which are engaged in major development projects with the West). But they have concentrated "generously" on the less-developed south, i.e. the poorer part of Serbia, and Montenegro, Macedonia, and the Kosovo region, with its Albanian minority.

In some instances the Russians have even stepped in with fat contracts for Yugoslav enterprises that were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. And in the post-Tito era, the Yugoslavs expect the Russians to try harder to exploit economic difficulties in those areas where they are most acute.

Russian eyes have been fixed on the Adriatic more and more since the start of the Middle East crisis in the late 1960s and as the Soviet Navy increased its presence in the Mediterranean.

To sustain their refusal to grant any special privileges, the Yugoslavs some years ago legislated the terms under which the warships of any "friendly" state may visit or, for example, use the repair facilities at their southern shipyard and port at Tivat. Conditions involve lengthy advance notice. While a vessel is in port for repair or refit, it must be totally disarmed, its ammunition stored ashore under Yugoslav control, and only a skeleton crew left on board.

For the port enterprise it is good business. But, since the US and British navies make periodic friendly visits to Yugoslavs waters without needing the Tivat facilities, it is in practice only the Russians who use them from time to time.

If Yugoslav economic circumstances forced an expansion of such ties with Russia, the latter clearly would set a price, quite possibly a demand for preferential treatment for its warships.

That is one reason Western observes here acknowledge the high priority Yugoslavia attaches to securing a better deal with the European Community in the trade agreement now being negotiated.

Arms aid is a sensitive issue for the Yugoslavs. They want no military aid program like the one that brought $1 billion worth of US weapons into this country in the 1950s and early '60s. But they do need more sophisticated types of weapons as they strengthen their defenses in this new domestic political situation.

Most of the weapons they really would like to buy from the West are under NATO strategic embargo. The United States and several other Western governments have indicated that "specific" Yugoslav requests would be "studies with sympathy."

But the Yugoslavs do not want to be seen by the Russians as leaning or tilting toward the West with a request for special consideration.

The issue may be sidestepped because, as the Yugoslavs see it, the Russian recognition of how costly Afghanistan is to detente with the West may take the heat off Europe, at least for the foreseeable future.

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