Russia Finds Yugoslavia Policy Demands Precarious Balancing

Nationalists identify with Serbs, but others seek closer Western ties

THE Russian government is walking a thin line in its policy toward the Yugoslav civil war.

Russia is torn between traditional economic, political, and ethnic ties to its fellow Slavs in Serbia and its desire to embrace and be accepted as part of the Western world.

This delicate balance was tested on Tuesday when Russia joined the United Nations General Assembly in expelling the remainder of the Yugoslav state from the UN, and on Sept. 19 when Russia sided with the Western powers in a Security Council decision to recommend the action. Now the federation of Serbia and Montenegro, which still calls itself Yugoslavia, is barred from taking the former Yugoslav seat.

In both the Security Council and General Assembly debates, Russia carefully distinguished itself from the Western powers, however, stressing its support for an application by "new Yugoslavia" to the UN. Russia interpreted the key Security Council resolution as allowing the continued participation of Yugoslav representatives in other UN bodies.

"We consider this step as a compromise, allowing the dropping of groundless demands to exclude the Union Republic of Yugoslavia from the United Nations de facto and de jure," the Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Sept. 21.

While Russia has supported Western moves to impose economic sanctions against the Serbs and send peacekeeping forces, it also backs the Yugoslav government of Premier Milan Panic as a moderate alternative to Serb nationalists. Russia endorses Mr. Panic's pledge to recognize the independence of the other former Yugoslav republics and his renunciation of ethnic purges.

"As the government's new course is implemented - and evidence of that already appears - we shall be the first to raise the question of a gradual lifting of the sanctions," Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told the Itar-Tass news agency Sept. 19. "We shall do everything for the new Yugoslavia, which implements the policy of Milan Panic, to take a worthy place in both the UN and in the family of nations as a whole."

Keeping this policy balance is not easy. "It was psychologically difficult for us" to vote to impose sanctions, Russian President Boris Yeltsin told visiting UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "It would be easier to abstain, but we voted together with other civilized states and are participating in the implementation of adopted decisions."

Within Russia, extreme nationalists and former Communists assail this stance as an example of slavish pro-Western policies.

Moderate politicians offer a more sophisticated argument. Social Democratic Party leader Oleg Rumyantsev opposes the Russian decision to vote to bar Yugoslavia from its UN seat.

"The fact that we didn't even abstain, as China, India, and Zimbabwe did, is one more severe mistake of the Foreign Ministry," he told the Monitor. He argues that failure to back the Panic government will only lead to total control by Serbian nationalists associated with President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Panic is an open, flexible man," Mr. Rumyantsev says. "I was there for 10 days [in August] and I can tell you that the radicals - Milosevic and the Radical Serbian Party - are getting stronger."

The parliamentarian also argues that Yugoslavia's situation is parallel to that of Russia, which assumed the seat of the Soviet Union in the UN following the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 separate nations.

Others carp that Russia suffers economically by following the West. Unnamed Russian government officials leaked to the independent Interfax news agency this week detailed figures on trade and loan losses as a result of following UN sanctions against Iraq, Libya, and Serbia and Montenegro. Out of $15.8 billion losses claimed, Yugoslavia accounts for $2 billion, they said.

Russian nationalists openly sympathize with the Radical Serbs, seeing parallels to the alleged oppression of Russian minorities who live in other former Soviet republics. They proclaim their common religious heritage of the Eastern Orthodox Church, joined in a kind of holy war against Muslims, as in Bosnia.

This kind of pan-Slavic ideology compelled Russia to intervene on the side of Serbia in the Balkan conflict that sparked World War I. In an Aug. 20 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Foreign Minister Kozyrev cautioned against ethnic factors dominating Russian foreign policy.

"The attempt to divide into the Slavic, German, or French communities in Europe threatens to return us to the situation of the First World War," he warned, "and, as applied to the Yugoslav tragedy, to make Serbia, for the second time in history, a detonator of a global catastrophe."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.