NATO attacks fan Russia's ire

Assault on Serbs is proving a ready focus for hard-liners and public

When NATO staged its first airstrike against Yugoslavia last week, Ildar Khasanov crossed his own personal Rubicon against a West he once worshiped.

This Russian teenager traveled 500 miles from a small provincial town to Moscow to volunteer to fight for the Serbian Army. He and hundreds of other youths lined up at recruiting centers organized by opposition groups, forming the front line of a new grass-roots cold war.

The government of Boris Yeltsin is presenting itself as an international peacemaker and hopes to salvage a political solution to the Yugoslav morass. While condemning NATO strikes on its ally Belgrade, Moscow can do little lest it risk jeopardizing chances for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But on the streets fury has erupted against America, with crowds turning out daily to hurl eggs and bottles at the US Embassy in Moscow. The situation escalated yesterday when the complex was sprayed with automatic weapons fire by gunmen in a stolen police vehicle. They reportedly tried, but failed in attempts to use two grenade launchers against the complex. Russian television said three suspects were later arrested.

Hard-line anti-Western and Communist parties are exploiting the public fury that has exploded among ordinary Russians. And analysts say that, if harnessed effectively, this sense of a reemerging threat could have long-term consequences for Russia, if not the world.

"The danger here is that ultranationalist groups could profit from the anger on the streets," says Alexander Bikayev, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center think tank in Moscow. "It could open the way for them to control the country," he says, referring to presidential elections due next year.

THE NATO bombings have provided a ready target for a widespread disillusionment with the Western-style reforms pursued since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Since the collapse of communism, the country has been drifting without a national idea, or value system, as Russians attempted to copy the American way.

Free-market reforms were discredited with the economic crisis that erupted in August. Those seeking to place blame now have a focus, says Alexander Bevz, president of the Civil Society think tank in Moscow. "Earlier there was a widespread sympathy for Americans because people thought they could live like them. Now they think these things are not for us and that we cannot follow American principles."

On top of this disillusionment with the West is a sense of reemerging threat from NATO, which many Russians now believe is advancing to their nation's own borders.

The alliance's support of the Kosovo Albanians is seen as a dangerous precedent for Russia's own breakaway Muslim-majority state of Chechnya. Then there is frustration at Russia's loss of superpower status and NATO's failure to seek approval for the bombings from the United Nations Security Council, where Russia could have used its veto to block any action.

Besides, many Russians - and people from Belarus and Ukraine next door - identify strongly with the Serbs, who are also Slavic Orthodox Christians.

Many of the men volunteering to fight for Yugoslavia expressed fears that an attack on Belgrade was the first step of a new cold-war advance directed at the Russian people.

"First they damaged the Soviet bloc. Then they attacked Iraq, and then Yugoslavia. What's next? Ukraine and then Russia?" wonders Mr. Khasanov.

The man next in line adds, "These are our brothers, they are just like us."

What struck many observers was the unusual spontaneity - and makeup - of crowds that besieged the US and other Western embassies over the past week. There were the usual suspects: old-style Communists and ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is trying to exploit the situation to revive flagging popular support.

But there was a new component one rarely sees at Russian demonstrations - young professionals and students who embrace a Western lifestyle of the Internet, vacations abroad, foreign cars, and free speech.

President Yeltsin is managing, just, to keep the nationalist genie in the bottle. The president has never been weaker in his seven-year reign - physically frail and facing impeachment hearings in parliament on April 15. His aides are facing a corruption probe.

Some hawkish generals are agitating for military confrontation against NATO in the Balkans.

But Yeltsin's Cabinet has instead followed a tepid course: kicking out two alliance representatives, calling for a world tribunal to indict the NATO leadership, and mobilizing a couple of rusty warships.

In an emergency session of the Duma, or lower house, on Saturday, the government managed to dash opposition calls to unilaterally lift a global arms embargo against Yugoslavia. Instead, the chamber issued a largely symbolic resolution denouncing the strikes and froze plans to debate the long-delayed START II nuclear arms reduction treaty.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov insisted that Russia would not get involved militarily in Yugoslavia. "If anyone thinks Russia is going to get sucked in [to a war] they are deeply mistaken," he told the Duma.

As he spoke, IMF managing director Michel Camdessus arrived to discuss a $4.8 billion loan Russia is urgently seeking to avoid default on its debt payments.

Whatever the official line, mercenaries could sneak weapons to Yugoslavia via Cyprus or Greece, or by boat along the Danube River, say military analysts.

Even more dangerous, for Russia at least, recruiting centers organized by Communists and Mr. Zhirinovsky may be more than just a publicity stunt, analysts say.

By enlisting volunteers, extremists may be forming the seeds of paramilitary groups resembling those in the early days of Hitler's Germany.

"The danger is that through this campaign these parties could have powerful organized paramilitary structures," says Mr. Bikayev.

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