RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin warned Bosnian Serbs April 27 that Russia would stand with the West in trying to gain their agreement to the United Nations-sponsored peace plan for the former Yugoslavia.
"The Russian Federation will not patronize those who resist the will of the world community," Mr. Yeltsin said in a statement. "Both Serbian nationalists and any other participants in the conflict who rely on force will be confronted with a tough rebuff by the United Nations."
Yeltsin's announcement follows the decision of the Bosnian Serbs to reject the Vance-Owen peace plan and the start of stringent new sanctions aimed at the Bosnian Serbs' backers in the former Yugoslavia.
The Russian government had abstained in the UN vote on those sanctions, a move widely seen as an attempt to avoid such a controversial move before the April 25 referendum here. Sympathy toward Serbia, with whom Russia shares linguistic, cultural, and religious roots, is common. Many Russians oppose Moscow's support for Western sanctions against Yugoslavia.
The Yeltsin declaration appears to confirm expectations that his referendum victory over conservative opponents in the communist-led parliament would free the Russian government to join tougher Western measures. Russian backing for steps against the Serbs, including possible military action, is considered crucial to their success.
But Western sources here caution against reading into Yeltsin's statement an endorsement of future military action. "The Russians fundamentally do not want the Serbia-Bosnia situation to turn into an armed intervention by the West," says a Western diplomat. "They have some very real fears about what could happen in the whole Balkan region if armed forces are introduced."
Indeed, while Yeltsin speaks of "decisive measures to quell the conflict," he does not specifically mention military steps. Instead, he refers to options such as restarting the negotiations, deployment of more UN observers, reconvening the broader London conference of all the former Yugoslav states, or holding a special conference on broader Balkan security.
And Russian officials are skeptical that either the tougher UN sanctions or military action will bring the Serbs into line.
"We should keep trying to find a diplomatic solution," Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin, Yeltsin's special envoy to the Yugoslav talks, told the Monitor. "Yes, we have those sanctions. Yes, we say we are prepared for some selective strikes. But what else? Even if we have those selective strikes, would it bring about a peaceful settlement in Bosnia?"
The senior Russian diplomat contends that pressure tactics will only stiffen Serbian resistance to a peaceful settlement of the Bosnian conflict and set the stage for the world to be drawn into a broader war. "My concern is that without the diplomatic component, the pressure component will lead us nowhere," he says. "And it is fraught with all sorts of unpleasant surprises and scenarios which we don't have answers to at this point." Talk of military action
Any military action should be discussed first in the UN Security Council, where Russia has a veto, Mr. Churkin insists.
But some military steps, such as air strikes, are theoretically possible without a further UN vote, based on the existing UN resolutions, the Western diplomat says. In that case, he suggests, "I'm not sure we couldn't bring Russia on board."
While Russia has generally backed the West, there are significant differences on how to settle the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Russian officials deny that their request to postpone the sanctions vote was due to domestic political factors. Instead, they say, it was motivated by their belief that the Vance-Owen plan, which would divide Bosnia between the Croatian, Muslim, and Serbian populations, is flawed. They contend that the Serbs would settle for an altered version giving them a slightly larger sl ice of Bosnian territory.
"I was working at that time on some kind of formula which would make it possible to bring about a deal on Bosnia and I thought I had a better chance if no new sanctions were voted upon," Churkin explains. "Then the vote made it more difficult.
The Western tendency to view the conflict in starkly moral terms, with the Serbs held out as villains, is also not shared here. "All sides are responsible for `ethnic cleansing' and bloodshed, not just the Serbs, as the United Nations resolution states," Yevgeny Ambartsumov, the head of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, told reporters April 23 after the return of a parliamentary fact-finding mission to the area. Mr. Ambartsumov, an adviser to Yeltsin, is a moderate critic of the Western policy.
Churkin points to the West's failure to react more strongly to recent fighting between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia as an example of its one-sided view.
"It does not help the settlement of the conflict - and it is not going to help it - if the actions by the other parties are disregarded and the focus and the burden is placed entirely on the Serbs," he says. Pro-Serb news reports
This gap in perception is reflected in Russian press coverage of the war. Exposes of Serbian atrocities of the kind that have mobilized public opinion in the West are almost absent. The Russian journalists covering the war are based mostly in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade and their reports tend to reflect the information fed by the Yugoslav government. In one recent case, Western-shot footage of maimed Muslim children in the besieged Bosnian town of Srebrenica was presented on an afternoon news broadc ast as victims of Muslim shelling.