First Yugoslavia, tomorrow Russia?

Why do Russians like Serbs? Don't they think of Slobodan Milosevic as a genocidal dictator deserving of all the firepower NATO can deliver? These are the questions I'm peppered with by American friends and colleagues as my fellow Russians go to the streets over NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

First, I say, listen to Russian nationalists' favorite slogan: "What is happening to Serbia today will happen to Russia tomorrow."

At both emotional and practical levels, the pounding Yugoslavia is taking reminds us of our cold war loss, and it's an uneasy feeling.

Serbia is an emotional touchstone because - just like Russia - it is a Slavic nation of Orthodox Christian heritage, squeezed between West and East on the border of European civilization. Both have large Muslim minorities with various degrees of local nationalism. Both Serbian and Russian identities were shaped over centuries of grueling defense against foreign aggression. In this century, we were allies in two world wars, and Serbia was also home to hundreds of thousands of Russian emigrs who fled the Bolshevik revolution. With such a shared history, we understand very well why Serbs wouldn't accept a foreign occupation to enforce "peace" in Kosovo.

On an emotional level, Russians can't help but sympathize with "brother" Serbs.

So, during the past 10 years of civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, when atrocities were committed on all sides, the Russian media have demonstrated perhaps the same degree of slant in favor of Serbs as the Western media have shown against them.

Russians who wanted to listen knew that Milosevic was a dictator and that he has encouraged ethnic cleansing. But they also know that similar ethnic cleansing was applied to Serb minorities in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Russian nationalists and Communists have trumpeted their support for Milosevic because they envy his dictatorial powers and popular support. But to secure the same position at home, they lacked two crucial things: a clear enemy and a state of war. Now NATO has given them both. And this is where emotion gives way to practical considerations.

Fear of NATO expansion takes shape in the form of military aggression against Russia's traditional ally, Serbia. At the same time, Russia is so weak that it can do nothing to prevent it.

It doesn't feel good. So anti-Western rhetoric falls on fertile ground in Russia.

For the last decade, Russians have seen a lot of arrogant apostles of Western civilization who came to preach "democracy" and "market economy" with little regard for Russia's 1,000-year history.

Economic policies, which were championed and bankrolled by the West, brought poverty to the vast majority of Russians and a huge foreign debt. Openness to global markets resulted in economic collapse last August. Young reformers, the West's best bet in Russian politics, turned out to be corrupt builders of crony capitalism.

And in geopolitical terms, the loss of the cold war meant we lost our empire and all of our allies, while the widely hailed "partnership" with the West feels like a deception. Even before NATO's action in Yugoslavia, it was clear that both the expansion of the Western alliance and the establishment of European Union are excluding Russia from, not integrating it into, the new world order.

The implications churn up not just Communists, but Russian liberals, centrists, and people of no political affiliation. Doubt swirls and we ask ourselves: Would the US bomb Russia over Chechnya? Would NATO interfere in the oil-rich Caspian basin, which Washington has declared within its sphere of interests? Will NATO troops arrive in the Baltics, a one-hour flight from Moscow?

The answers, shadowed by the NATO bombing in Serbia, are not consoling. Russia is indirectly being bombed back into its old isolationism and xenophobia.

This is a victory for nationalists and Communists and proponents of a strong state, who already have an upper hand in Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's government and control parliament, which is shelving Start II and talking about putting nuclear missiles back in Belarus and Ukraine.

Washington policymakers rightly calculated that present-day Russia is too weak, too preoccupied with internal problems, and too dependent on Western money to go to war over Serbia. But in the long run, the policies of a global policeman are certain to backfire.

*Andrei Zolotov Jr. is a staff writer at The Moscow Times, an English-language daily.

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