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Russia: Moscow Takes Center Stage In Kosovo Conflict

  • Matt Frost

Prague, 26 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow takes center stage again today as diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Kosovo crisis continue. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is meeting today with Russia's special Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari for another round of Kosovo talks.

On arrival in Moscow yesterday, Talbott told reporters that it was: "an entirely good thing that the Russian president, the Russian foreign minister and the Russian special envoy are putting their shoulders to the wheel -- as we are -- to see how much we can do together."

Russia is calling for a halt to NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia to clear the way for a political solution. NATO says the air strikes won't end until Yugoslavia meets its conditions, including pulling Serb forces out of Kosovo and accepting an international peace force with a strong NATO presence.

The composition of the international force is proving to be one of the most difficult issues to be agreed upon.

Talbott said today after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov that NATO stood by its demands for a complete withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and a central role for NATO in any international peacekeeping force to be deployed there. Russia is pushing for a United Nations-led force that would only include NATO members that have not participated in attacks on Yugoslavia.

Talbott acknowledged that disagreements over Kosovo were straining U.S. relations with Moscow, as well as causing strain "in Russia itself." But he said that the disagreements had not destroyed the determination to find a solution.

And U.S. President Bill Clinton -- writing in an opinion piece Sunday on the op-ed page of The New York Times -- praised Russia's role as an intermediary in the conflict.

Clinton said Russia is now helping to work out a way for Belgrade to meet NATO's conditions and that Russian troops should participate in the force that will keep the peace in Kosovo. He said that would turn a source of tension between Moscow and NATO into an opportunity for cooperation.

But Russian political analyst Sergey Markov --director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political Studies -- told RFE/RL today he saw little ground for Russia to work with NATO or the U.S. on Kosovo. Markov said Moscow has gained nothing from its compliant stance with regard to U.S. policies in Iraq and Bosnia and should "distance itself" from the West's policies towards Yugoslavia if Moscow is to reap any political or economic dividends.

However, Markov said that Russia is well positioned to mediate in the Kosovo conflict.

"I consider that Russia has good prospects for playing a serious role in resolving the crisis because of two factors: Russia has good relationships with both parties in the conflict, with NATO and Yugoslavia; and secondly Russia is insisting on a resolution to the crisis which is supported by the majority of countries and Russia has the more realistic proposals than either Yugoslavia or NATO." Clinton's and Talbott's words of sympathy and encouragement for the Russian mediation effort also appear to have failed to mollify Russia's chief negotiators on the conflict, Chernomyrdin and Ivanov.

Yesterday, Chernomyrdin said that Russia is preparing to adopt a harder line in negotiations and that it will now be more insistent in its demands that NATO halts air strikes on Yugoslavia.

Chernomyrdin's aides say he plans another visit to Belgrade tomorrow and hopes the Finnish head of state will go with him -- if Russia and the West can agree what sort of foreign military force they want to see take control in Kosovo.

But he told Russian TV on Monday that, if the talks made no progress, "Russia will simply withdraw from this process".

British Defense Analyst James Sherr -- a fellow with the Conflict Studies Research Center at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst --told RFE/RL today that Russia is keen to see an end to the Balkans conflict. But he says Moscow also wants to extract as much leverage out of the situation as possible to weaken NATO and to marginalize the alliance's role in any future European security structure:

"If there is a strategic calculation and general theme behind Russia's behavior -- both Ivanov's and Chernomyrdin's -- at this point it is to undermine NATO; it is to ensure ... that the conflict stops in a way which is damaging to NATO and provides Russia and other NATO opponents with fresh opportunities to push for a new security architecture in Europe in which NATO will play a marginal role.... For this reason it is not accidental that all Russian efforts have been focused either on the U.S. or Germany or other multi-lateral institutions but not on NATO."

Sherr also says that negotiations are taking place in the shadow of the Russian parliamentary elections which are due later in the year and that there is a clear rift between the hawkish approach of Ivanov and the more conciliatory tones of Chernomyrdin.

Ivanov, speaking in an interview with the Madrid newspaper, ABC, was quoted yesterday as saying that "NATO-Russian relations are frozen at this time, and it is quite evident that they cannot be as they were before last March 24 [when NATO bombing started].

However, despite Moscow's defiant stance over Yugoslavia, many analysts agree that the importance for Moscow of maintaining good relations with the West far outweighs any geo-political interests in the Balkans. That, they say, suggests that relations can be repaired once the Kosovo crisis ends.