Russia shifting to mediator role

Still opposed to NATO's bombs, Moscow tempers its rhetoric. One reason:

After weeks of strident rhetoric, including warnings of World War III, the Russian government is now displaying greater calm toward NATO and more distance from Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Moscow is still vehemently opposed to the strikes against Yugoslavia, over which it froze formal relations with NATO when the campaign began a month ago. But the Kremlin appears to be taking a new approach as it pursues the mediating role.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin may have had domestic political intrigue in mind when he appointed April 14 a new peace envoy to the Balkans, Viktor Chernomyrdin, his former long-serving prime minister. But Mr. Chernomyrdin has good ties with the Clinton administration, and in recent days the Kremlin's inflammatory language has noticeably toned down.

"There seems to be a shift. Russia appears more conciliatory and moderate to us now," says one Western diplomat.

Putting a new face on peace efforts may be part of Mr. Yeltsin's growing desperation to counter pressure by the nationalist-leftist opposition to arm Russia's traditional Slavic ally Yugoslavia. Such hawkish cries will only grow louder if NATO sends ground troops, as Russia fears it will. Russia's economy and military are in crisis and the last thing the government wants is a new cold war.

As a signal, perhaps, that it does not want to alienate the West, Russia announced April 19 that it would not send ships to the Adriatic in addition to the reconnaissance vessel already there.

While Russia continues to insist that NATO halt its bombing, officials are now more open about their exasperation with the hard line of its ally Mr. Milosevic. Chernomyrdin lends a new face to peace initiatives, after a failed mediation attempt by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov early in the NATO campaign.

Contact with NATO has intensified, with a new receptiveness by the Clinton administration to draw upon the help of Russia. Yeltsin spoke with President Clinton for nearly an hour on April 19, in their first prolonged contact since NATO's assault on Yugoslavia began.

Russia's value as a mediator does not appear to have been lessened by moves afoot to join Yugoslavia to a loose economic union between Russia and its hard-line neighbor Belarus. Russia's lower legislative assembly, the Duma, passed a nonbinding resolution endorsing such a move, which has won enthusiasm in Belgrade.

But the notion of a Slav superstate, although frightening to the West, is little more than post-Soviet nostalgia and symbolism. The Kremlin has paid only lip service to the idea.

Chernomyrdin's appointment was widely seen as a rebuff to Mr. Primakov, who has threatened Yeltsin with his high political profile. But Russian officials say the new Balkans envoy is working in tandem, rather than in competition, with the prime minister as mediator.

Chernomyrdin's strengths include a closeness to Vice President Al Gore and to some Western European leaders forged during his more than five years as Yeltsin's lieutenant. As a figure outside the government, Chernomyrdin is not as concerned as Primakov is about winning support of the opposition, which dominates parliament.

Chernomyrdin is also not as chummy with Milosevic, although he claims good ties with the Yugoslav leader from the days when he headed Russia's gas company giant, Gazprom. Some analysts have speculated he may use Rus -sian energy supplies to Yugoslavia as a way to pressure it to accept a peace settlement. However, so far Moscow has given no sign that it endorses NATO's call to cut off oil.

Fear of the war escalating is surely a factor behind the striking change in Yeltsin's demeanor. After spending much of the past 18 months out of action because of sickness, Yeltsin is suddenly looking more in control.

The man who earlier this year had to hold meetings at his hospital bed is now appearing regularly on national television without the slurred speech and stumbling that so marked his recent public appearances.

Kremlin watchers say Yeltsin's comeback is all the more remarkable, since his political situation has never been weaker, an impeachment vote in parliament looms a month away, and corruption scandals are simmering.

"The Russian czar awoke in the President ...," opined the liberal Izvestia newspaper April 20. "[He is] active and self-confident, regardless of his catastrophically low public ratings and the country's grave economic situation."

Even with more decisive leadership, there is a limit to what Moscow can do as a go-between as long as both sides in the conflict remain intransigent. A month of bombing only seems to have strengthened both NATO's and Milosevic's resolve not to compromise.

"The reality is that Milosevic is not broken down. But NATO believes that he is. We'll do our best to pursue negotiations, but the current prospects aren't good," says one high-ranking Russian official.

Yeltsin knows he is running out of time and that hawkish pressure will grow with every month of the war. Already, after just a few weeks of NATO raids, public opinion polls show anti-Americanism building dramatically among ordinary Russians.

With parliamentary and presidential elections due within 15 months, the likelihood of a less moderate government coming to power is great. Nationalism was on the rise before the NATO bombings, and most Kremlin watchers expect that the days of the pro-Western reformers will end with the next polls.

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