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Russia: Talbott Tries To Bridge Differences On Balkan Crisis

  • Matt Frost

Prague, 28 April 1999 RFE/RL) -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott held talks in Moscow yesterday with President Boris Yeltsin's special envoy on Yugoslavia -- former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -- in a bid to narrow differences over the conflict in Kosovo.

Few details are available about the talks, which reportedly lasted a number of hours, other than Talbott's comment that the two sides are slowly bridging their differences.

Talbott's mission to Moscow was precipitated by an hour-long telephone call on Sunday between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. president Bill Clinton toward the end of NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington.

Russia boycotted the summit in protest over NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. Analysts say Washington is keen to soothe ruffled feathers and reassure Moscow that it still has an important role to play in any potential resolution of the conflict.

Indeed, some Russian commentators argue that the United States desperately needs Moscow to extricate NATO from a strategic war in which it never intended to get involved.

Commentator Mikhail Stoyanov -- in yesterday's edition of Moskovskaya Pravda -- says the West has realized Moscow holds the key to any resolution of the Yugoslav conflict. And Kommersant Daily writes that Washington's view of Moscow's role has undergone a complete about-face: if toward the start of the military campaign Washington saw Moscow as a thorn in the side of its Balkans policy, then now it is pinning its hopes on Moscow pulling NATO out of "the blind alley" of increasing military engagement with Yugoslavia over Kosovo.

U.S. officials say Talbott wanted to use the talks to squeeze more details about last week's talks in Belgrade between Chernomyrdin and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

On his return to Moscow last Friday, Chernomyrdin said he had won agreement from Yugoslavia for the deployment of a U.N. military force in Kosovo to police any peace accord. Belgrade promptly denied the claim, saying it had agreed only to unarmed observers.

Despite the apparent failure of the Chernomyrdin mission, however, Russian media observers note that while NATO appears steadfast in its insistence that Milosevic remove his troops from the Serbian province and allow the return of the ethnic Albanian population, there may well be room to maneuver when it comes to the composition of any armed peacekeeping force on Yugoslav soil.

Meeting with Yeltsin before the talks with the U.S. envoy, Chernomyrdin commented that he was pleased to meet with Talbott but that Moscow is dead set against a NATO oil embargo against Yugoslavia. Chernomyrdin said "this measure does not suit us."

Before his talks with Chernomyrdin yesterday, Talbott met for more than 90 minutes with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Talbott described the talks as "very constructive":

"I learned even more about Russian perceptions of the situation. And I'm convinced that the United States and Russia are continuing to work together --along with many other countries--to try and bring peace to the region."

Ivanov described the talks as "important, substantial and useful," but warned that the NATO threat to impose an oil blockade against Yugoslavia has no legal force for Russia and that Russia will act "accordingly." He did not elaborate.

Some NATO countries are concerned that a naval blockade of Yugoslavia could become a potential flashpoint between NATO and Russia. But Kommersant Daily points out that Moscow has already reduced its oil supplies to Belgrade and any decision to send more tankers -- possibly protected by Russian naval vessels -- would constitute a high-risk gamble not in Moscow's best interests.

The talks in Moscow are taking place against the backdrop of the usual Kremlin intrigue, with Yeltsin's appointment of Chernomyrdin -- his former prime minister -- as special envoy to the Balkans being seen as an apparent snub to current Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the Russian Foreign Ministry, headed by Ivanov. Primakov's own trip to Belgrade at the beginning of the month to bring about a political end to the crisis ended in failure.

Yesterday's talks kick off a week of intense diplomatic activity in Moscow, involving the U.S., the United Nations, Canada and European officials, all of whose envoys are hoping that Moscow can forge a mediating role for itself that will result in a face-saving alternative for Milosevic while complying with NATO's basic demands.