ASSERTING its perceived role as preeminent mediator in the Balkan war, a hurt Russia reacted angrily yesterday to NATO airstrikes against Serb forces, insisting that no action should have been taken without first consulting Moscow.
The airstrikes near the Bosnian town of Gorazde were interpreted here as a diplomatic snub against Russia, which has traditionally been Serbia's protector and sees itself as the main mediator in the former Yugoslavia and the ``near abroad.''
Russia has joined UN sanctions against Belgrade, which the West has accused of helping Serb forces in Bosnia, and has supported the use of force to back UN humanitarian relief efforts. But it has consistently opposed outside military intervention in the Bosnian crisis.
In February, Russia scored a diplomatic victory after it averted possible NATO airstrikes by negotiating with Serb forces to have them remove their guns from around the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
Russia had vehemently opposed the airstrikes, arguing they would require a fresh decision by the United Nations Security Council, where it has a veto.
But that view was not accepted by the West or UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who said previous resolutions provide sufficient authority to use force.
Yeltsin denounces attack
Speaking to reporters at Moscow's Vnukovo-2 airport yesterday, an angry President Boris Yeltsin said he personally complained about the raids to President Bill Clinton in a telephone conversation, where he pledged to push for a UN debate on the incident, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
``I insisted to Clinton time and again that such a decision cannot be taken without prior consultation between the United States and Russia,'' President Yeltsin said before leaving to Spain for a three-day visit. ``They cannot be. And we shall insist on this.''
Yeltsin said Mr. Clinton had not been able to answer when asked if the raid had prior approval of Mr. Boutros-Ghali.
But Boutros-Ghali yesterday told reporters in Geneva it was up to the president of the Council and not up to him to call an emergency meeting of the Security Council as called for by Russia. ``As I have said during the last 48 hours, the safe areas designed by the UN must remain safe areas,'' Boutros-Ghali said.
The raids are also likely to provoke sharp debate in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, and could complicate Russia's entry into NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Yeltsin last week said Russia would probably join Partnership this month but would insist on a ``special status.'' His spokesman later proposed a link between Russia's entry and acceptance of Moscow as a full member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Churkin, Russia's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, will fly to Sarajevo to assess damage from the raid and meet with Serbia's leader Slobodan Milosevic, said Sergei Yushenkov, head of the Duma's defense committee.
Mr. Yushenkov told the Monitor he doubted NATO's decision was UN-approved, saying he had ``information'' that the raid was provoked by the Bosnian Muslims. ``Only after Churkin's visit can we make an informed opinion about the incident,'' he said.
A senior Russian foreign ministry official, quoted anonymously by the Interfax news agency, said the raids put the whole Bosnian peace process in doubt.
A Russian battalion of 1,200 troops are participating with UN forces in rump Yugoslavia, and about 16,000 more are deployed as ``peacekeepers'' in former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan.
Russia's stance toward former Yugoslavia has enjoyed support from across the political spectrum, but hard-liners have criticized it for being too ``pro-Western'' and harming the interests of their Orthodox Christian ``brethren.''
``We condemn the US bombing of the Serbs, taking into account that such actions destabilize the situation in the Balkans,'' said Gennady Serebrennikov, press secretary for ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. ``The entire sympathy of our Russian brothers is on the side of the Serbs. The Liberal Democratic Party would like to remind people that World War I began in the Balkans.''
Members of the Duma voted April 6 to debate lifting sanctions against former Yugoslavia, and hard-liners accused the UN of encouraging ``genocide'' against the Bosnian Serbs.
Leaders of a recent delegation to Bosnia have proposed that retired Russian Army officers relocate and settle in Serb-seized territory in Bosnia.
But Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who is accompanying Yeltsin to Spain, said last week that it was ``impossible'' to settle the Bosnian crisis without full participation of the Serbs.
``The Russian leadership, not extremist forces, are reliable friends of the Serb republic's leadership,'' Mr. Kozyrev told visiting Yugoslav parliament chairman Radoman Bozovic, according to ITAR-Tass.
``The Russia side favors lifting sanctions, which have turned into an anachronism, as soon as a Bosnian settlement is signed,'' Kozyrev said.