Peeved Russians Talk The Talk but Stay on Sidelines in Bosnia

THE Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, signaled this weekend how deeply NATO bombing in Bosnia is driving hard feelings toward the West.

Not just radical nationalists, but leaders of the main communist party and other factions spoke of the beginning of World War III in an extraordinary session convened Saturday. This time the fight would be along religious lines with the Christian West and Muslim civilizations pitted against the Christian Orthodox East.

The deputies called for the ouster of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev for failing to assert Russian influence in the Balkans and demanded that Russia withdraw from the Partnership for Peace, a program that loosely links Eastern European nations to NATO.

None of the Duma actions has force of law, but they reflect the increasing alienation of Russia from the West.

The Duma session came a day after President Boris Yeltsin declared that NATO's expansion could lead to "the conflagration of war throughout Europe" and the redivision of Europe into opposing blocs."

Behind Russian feelings over the course of the Balkan war is a deep frustration over Russia's current status in the world and a sense that NATO is taking advantage of Russian weakness.

Russia has no critical national interests in the former Yugoslavia, says Dmitri Trenin, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. But the issue symbolizes Russia's weak standing. "Russia at the moment is not a great power," he says, acknowledging that this is a painful point for Russians. "It's fairly marginal in Europe right now."

And events in Bosnia drive home to Russians their inability to influence an issue that more closely affects them - the potential expansion of NATO into the formerly communist Eastern Europe.

Russians in fact have little leverage on events in the Balkans. Even if they went so far as to decide to arm the Serbs, unlikely as long as Mr. Yeltsin is president, they are largely blocked from doing so. Both the Romanians and Hungarians have said they would bar Russian weapons from transiting their airspace, and Russian ships are even less likely to square off against NATO warships in the Mediterranean.

The most immediate impact of rocky Russian relations with NATO is in Russian domestic politics. One of the first potential victims is Mr. Kozyrev, seen in the Duma as too acquiescent to the West. Yeltsin also was slightly critical of his foreign minister on Friday. "Kozyrev is likely to go," says Duma deputy Boris Fyodorov, a moderate who personally supports the foreign minister.

Mr. Fyodorov sees Yeltsin's remarks about NATO as too aggressive, and the most democratic factions in the Duma oppose withdrawal from the Partnership for Peace. But virtually no one in Russian politics supports current NATO policy in the Balkans.

Using outside force in civil wars only deepens resistance, says Fyodorov, citing the lessons of the Spanish civil war, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Other deputies cite Moscow's use of military power in Chechnya as a lesson in the limits of force.

"The West thinks bombs can suppress people who resisted the Turks for 400 years and the German Army for four years," Fyodorov says. Instead, he anticipates more terrorism and resistance.

If Russia encouraged volunteers to go help the Serbs, he asks, as many Duma deputies now suggest, "how many hundreds of thousands of Russians would go? Quite a lot." But not many Americans would go to join the Bosnian Muslim cause, he adds.

Nearly a century ago, a wave of Russian volunteers joined the Serbian Army against the Turks, dragging the government grudgingly into hostility. Popular opinion led to Russian engagement in World War I to defend their fellow Orthodox slavs in Serbia.

Russian alienation is not in long-term US interests, a Western diplomat points out. "Russia is not always going to be on its knees, and the tone set now is going to last for awhile."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Peeved Russians Talk The Talk but Stay on Sidelines in Bosnia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today