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Yugoslavia: Russia Plays Both Sides In Serbia

  • Alexandra Poolos

Serbian opposition leaders visited Moscow hoping to gain Russia's help in their struggle with the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. So far the visit has had one tangible result -- Russia has urged Milosevic to restore independent radio and television Studio B to opposition control. Alexandra Poolos looks at the results of yesterday's visit and what can be expected in the future from Russia.

Prague, May 30 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian opposition leaders returned to Belgrade from Moscow this morning full of high hopes. Zoran Djindjic, Vuk Draskovic, and Vojiskav Kostunica went to Russia to campaign for support in their struggle against the authoritarian policies of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his crackdown on independent media. After meeting with low-level Foreign Ministry officials and members of the Duma, the trio left with a Russian Foreign Ministry statement calling for the return of an independent status to the radio and television broadcaster Studio B.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement, however, is nothing new, but rather only a slight escalation of what has already been said. A ministry statement issued before this visit had expressed Russia's "grave concern" over Belgrade's crackdown on independent media. That earlier statement said: "Freedom of expression and freedom of media are inseparable parts of the democratic process."

It still remains unclear whether the opposition delegation managed to achieve their most important task -- generating Russian sympathy for their goal of deposing Milosevic.

After his meetings with Russian officials, Draskovic said that Russia is the only country that can help them to deal with Milosevic.

"If there is any voice today that has to be respected, it is the voice of Russia."

But will Russia use that voice to help the Serbian opposition?

Some Serbian opposition officials say they believe that Russia is moving to align itself with their concerns. Predrag Simic, an adviser to Draskovic, told RFE/RL that Russia has a lot to gain from criticizing Milosevic: "Russia has more -- say -- balanced interests in the Balkans. Because only supporting Milosevic would threaten the escalation of the crisis. Because the Serbian government is now very keen to use violence to suppress voices of dissent of the opposition, and that might restart...the cycle of the Yugoslav crisis."

Simic believes that Russia has a good incentive to criticize Milosevic -- preserving peace in the Balkans. He says that if Milosevic continues with his crackdowns, it may lead to a break with Montenegro, which could trigger another Yugoslav war:

"First, Russia does have a way to influence officials in Belgrade to stop the violence and to return an independent status to Studio B. Second, we do believe Russia is interested in preserving the Serbian-Montenegrin Federation and preserving stability in the Balkans. And third, we believe that Russia is talking to the Serbian opposition not only on behalf of itself but on behalf of the international community."

Russian analysts say that Moscow stands most to gain by remaining an ally of Serbia. That's why, they say, Russia is staying friendly with both sides in Serbia, both the Milosevic regime and its adversaries. They point out that, while showing lukewarm support for the opposition, Russia is also shoring up its overall support of Serbia and minimizing its criticism of Milosevic.

Viktor Kremenyuk is deputy director at the U.S. and Canada Institute in Moscow, a foreign-policy research organization. Kremenyuk says that Russia sees Serbia as its one true ally in the Balkans and in Europe:

"The general Russian line is that Serbia is a Russian ally and that Russia has a strong commitment to help Serbia out of this crisis. There was a kind of shaky balance between the commitments of Russia toward NATO, because of the Russian participation in KFOR, and the commitment of Russia to Belgrade. So I think that currently, I think the Russians feel they have to work more closely with Belgrade rather than NATO."

In the past, Russia has consistently supported Milosevic. Moscow opposed NATO's air campaign last year, and has recently said it is prepared to extend a $100 million loan to Yugoslavia to repair damage from the bombings. Earlier this month, Russia hosted Yugoslav Defense Minister General Dragoljub Ojdanic, a man who has been indicted for war crimes by the Hague-based tribunal.

Kremenyuk says that Russia ultimately believes it must continue to deal with Milosevic.

"Milosevic is acceptable because he is the recognized leader of Serbs and the Russians have no choice. They cannot say they don't like Milosevic and are not going to work with him. As long he is Yugoslav president, the Russians have to work with him. But that doesn't mean that the Russians will go as far as not to have any contacts with the opposition."

In short, according to Kremenyuk, Russia is walking a fine line. If Moscow openly supports Milosevic, he says, the crackdowns in Serbia could get worse. That would help escalate opposition and popular protests, and increase the possibility of the Yugoslav leader's ultimate fall. But, Kremenyuk says, if Russia criticizes Milosevic, it will then be demonstrating support for a West-leaning, anti-government movement.

Thus the safest policy -- and the one Russia seems to be following -- is to say as little as possible. Such a policy, Kremenyuk notes, will help Russia retain Serbia as an ally no matter what occurs.