Will Russia offer a graceful exit for Milosevic?

The West hopes Moscow can negotiate a peaceful transition of power for a close ally.

As pressure increases at home and abroad for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to leave office, Russia is seeking to play a key role as intermediary.

A nudge from Moscow has helped to persuade Mr. Milosevic to back down at least once before, and might present the best chance for a peaceful exit from the present crisis, Russian experts say.

President Vladimir Putin, in the middle of a four-day state visit to India, has offered to meet with Milosevic and Vojislav Kostunica - the opposition candidate who outpolled him in Sept. 24 elections - "to discuss means of resolving the current situation."

Milosevic has yet to make a formal reply. Mr. Kostunica reportedly is willing to travel to Moscow as early as tomorrow, if formally invited.

But opposition protests are mounting against a runoff vote set for Sunday. "Yugoslavia is on the brink of explosion, and the key issue now is to ensure stability," says Yevgeny Kozhokhin, director of the official Institute of Strategic Studies, a think tank that advises the Kremlin on foreign policy. "Unfortunately the West is whipping up tension there with its tough demands that Milosevic step down and face trial as a war criminal.... Russia, which has never regarded Milosevic as a war criminal, is the only country in Europe that can step in and play the role of honest broker."

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Monday that Moscow's role should be to persuade Milosevic to accept defeat and leave office. "We have all been in very close touch with our Russian counterparts," Dr. Albright said. "I think it is evident from their perspective that Kostunica won the first round. They have said that."

But experts close to the Kremlin say the matter is not quite so clear. "The official results may have been faked, but the opposition claims might be phony as well," says Alexander Karasyov, a Yugoslavia specialist with the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies. "If we can bring the two sides to a negotiating table, they may agree to hold a second round under tight international scrutiny. Why should anyone fear this, especially if it avoids violence?"

Russia, a traditional ally of fellow Orthodox, Slavic Serbia, is the only European state to retain close links with Milosevic. His brother, Borislav, is the Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow. Russia strongly opposed last year's NATO bombing campaign over the mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and Russian diplomacy may have been instrumental in persuading Milosevic to accept a humiliating peace that handed the southern Serbian province over to Western administration. Serbia and Montenegro make up what remains of Yugoslavia.

"It was only when Russia became actively involved in seeking a diplomatic exit that the war came to an end," asserts Mr. Karasyov. "This shows that the Serbian people trust Russia and will accept solutions mediated by us, while Western demands will only stiffen their resentment."

Since last year's Yugoslav war, Russia has defied NATO by sending millions of dollars in aid to Belgrade and remains the embargoed country's sole supplier of oil and gas. Earlier this year, Moscow hosted a visit by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic, who, like Milosevic, has been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. "Western pressure only strengthens Milosevic's hand," says Sergei Romanenko, a Balkan expert with the Institute for International Economic and Political Studies in Moscow. But, he warns, "Russian intervention, unless it is very carefully thought out, runs a similar risk of giving Milosevic more political space to maneuver. Basically, the internationalization of the situation has been disastrous."

Russia may be the only country that can offer Milosevic a credible avenue of escape from his enemies at home and abroad. But a sanctuary offer would require at least the tacit agreement of the West, since Russia - a member of the United Nations Security Council - could not be seen acting alone to aid an indicted war criminal. "Under the right circumstances, Russia is ready to take part in solving this problem," says Mr. Kozhokhin. "The main priority ... is the urgent need to prevent the situation in Yugoslavia from flying out of control."

"The era of Milosevic is coming to an end in Yugoslavia, and Russia is the one country that can help bring that about peacefully," says Alexander Konovalov, an analyst with the independent Center of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "We can also assist Milosevic and his family to retire from the scene, though it would probably be best if they didn't come to Russia," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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