Accessibility links

Balkan Report: April 21, 1999

21 April 1999, Volume 3, Number 15

Russia, the Past and the Future in the Balkans. A team of RFE/RL analysts recently discussed Russia's role in the current conflict in Kosova. They examined the issue in light of Moscow-Washington relations, Russian domestic politics, and the perceptions of Russia held in the former Yugoslavia.

One analyst argued that, in the wake of the Kosova crisis, U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in ten years. These relations have, however, been complicated by differences on a variety of issues, including Iraq, NATO expansion, nuclear proliferation, and START II ratification. The extent of deterioration in bilateral relations should nonetheless not be overstated. Business between Moscow and Washington continues on numerous bilateral issues -- such as the reprocessing of uranium -- as well as on the Balkan crisis itself.

But the U.S. almost certainly underestimated the rhetorical fury of the Russian reaction, the analyst continued. Washington has, moreover, three aims during the current crisis, which to some extent are contradictory: continuing to make progress on issues of bilateral concern; securing Russian help to settle the crisis; and winning the war in the Balkans.

For its part, Russia is critical of its exclusion from an area in which it has long had political and economic interests. (Even in the years immediately following the breakup of the USSR, Moscow made it clear that it remained a power to be reckoned with in the Balkans.) But rhetoric aside, the analyst argued, Russia's response so far has been non-confrontational. Moscow fully supported the Rambouillet peace process. It has, moreover, moderated its stance in the past few days. Its position on a settlement, however, differs from NATO's largely on a single issue, namely whose troops will play a peacekeeping role.

More fundamentally, Russian reaction is a response to its acute sense of its military decline, its search for an international role and the lack of domestic consensus on a security concept. Its reaction also has been shaped by domestic politics, including the succession struggle and the rivalry between President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov.

Whether damage to U.S.-Russian relations will be permanent will largely depend on how the war ends. If it concludes in a negotiated settlement, the analyst concluded, Russia is likely to play a key role in enforcing the peace, and the damage to bilateral relations will likely be repaired. If the war expands, however, Russia may be forced into rendering assistance to Belgrade -� perhaps by breaking the arms embargo. And at a minimum, a wider war would heighten internal divisions in Moscow.

The second analyst noted that while NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia first appeared to unify Russia's political elite, the Balkan conflict was quickly absorbed into the nation's now routine process of jockeying for power and position ahead of Duma and presidential elections.

The consequences of this have mostly been negative for political stability and the cohesion of the Russian Federation. For example, talk of including Yugoslavia in the Union of Belarus and Russia and of sending military volunteers to aid the Serbs has alienated the nation's 20 million-strong Muslim population. One might conclude, in fact, that the juxtaposition of some regions' support for the Kosovar Albanians with others' support for the Serbs has the potential to lead to a splintering of what is ostensibly a single foreign policy.

In addition, the recruitment of volunteer brigades to send to Yugoslavia is also potentially harmful to Russia's stability. This is because, even if these men are not armed, they are organized and are potentially deployable domestically by leaders of groups whose political philosophies tend toward extremism.

From the Balkans itself, the picture looks quite different, a third analyst maintained. Russian influence in the Balkans is limited first and foremost by Russia's own economic weakness. The vast majority of the region's population seeks to attain Western European standards of living and join Euro-Atlantic structures. On these key issues, Russia has precious little to offer.

If the Belgrade regime sees Russia as its political protector and has launched its campaign for membership in the club of Moscow and Minsk, it is mainly because it has no other major ally to turn to. Even the leadership of traditionally Russophile Montenegro does not accept the Belgrade parliament's vote to join the Union of Belarus and Russia. Romantic rhetoric about Orthodox Slavic solidarity may move some extremists, but most people in the region are more interested in raising their standard of living than in committing themselves to a sterile ideology.

As to the other Balkan countries, NATO is engaged in a constructive, hands-on relationship with Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Turkey and Greece remain firm members of the Atlantic alliance, even if much of Greek public opinion sympathizes with Serbia. The governments of Albania and Macedonia, moreover, are trying to show that they are ready for EU and NATO integration and see the crisis as a chance to speed up that process.

The bottom line, that analyst continued, is that only the West offers a credible prospect for economic development in the Balkans. And both Brussels and Washington stress that the countries of the region must leave nationalism behind and promote cooperation if they want to join the Euro-Atlantic club.

In the past week, both U.S. President Bill Clinton and the German government have outlined plans for long-term stability and progress in the Balkans. Both plans stress the democratization of Serbia and a long-term Western commitment to raising the level of economic development in the region. This, yet another analyst concluded, is the agenda for the future. A sentimental appeal to Orthodox Slavic solidarity among a group of weak states is, by contrast, an empty throwback to the past.

Clinton: Democratization of Serbia is the Key. U.S. President Bill Clinton told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in San Francisco on April 15 that peace and stability in the Balkans "will require a democratic transition in Serbia, for the region's democracies will never be safe with a belligerent tyranny in their midst." Clinton said that he does not think that an independent Kosova would be economically viable or contribute to regional stability. He added that "the last thing we need in the Balkans is greater balkanization. The best solution for [Kosova], for Serbia, for Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and all the countries of southeast Europe, is not the endless rejiggering of their borders, but greater integration into a Europe in which sovereignty matters but in which borders are becoming more and more open and less important in a negative sense."

Clinton added that "we must follow the example of the World War II generation by standing up to aggression and hate and then by following through with a post-conflict strategy for reconstruction and renewal� [A peaceful future] "will take constant, steady American engagement together with our European allies, old and new� It will take money in the form of investment and aid," he added. Clinton also urged the U.S. and Western Europe to keep the doors of NATO and the EU open for new members.

Quotations of the Week. "Three quarters of mankind support me. NATO member states comprise only some 500 million of the world's population." -- The ousted hard-line, Republika Srpska President Nikola Poplasen, April 15.

"I like Milosevic more than ever because he is defending us." "I don't want to live in Bosnia. Bosnia is made by the Americans." -- Two young Bosnian Serb women, to Reuters on April 18.

"A rude gesture to demonstrate NATO's military might" -- Serbian spokesman on April 14, after NATO bombed Belgrade during the visit of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Clinton hopes that Milosevic "will go to a capitulation and cede the whole of Yugoslavia. We shall not allow that to happen. This is a strategic area." -- Russian President Yeltsin, April 19.

"The [Kosovar] Albanians shouldn't fear anyone, especially not the Serbs." -- Mirjana Markovic, who is a prominent Serbian communist and the wife of Milosevic, to a leading Italian talk show on April 13.

"Serbian soldiers came with cameras and filmed the blood and the dead and told us to go and say that NATO bombed you." -- Newly arrived refugee to Reuters in Kukes on April 15, describing an air attack on his convoy on the Gjakova-Prizren road the previous day.

"The Serbs can't get at NATO directly, so they are taking it out on the refugees and making NATO look bad." -- Danish OSCE monitor, on the same incident.

"Let us not allow one accident, no matter how tragic to obscure the real stakes in this crisis, which is sometimes one has to risk lives of the few in order to save lives of the many." -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, April 15.

"Now is not a good moment to stage a coup [in Montenegro]. Milosevic cannot control two fronts at the same time," Montenegrin Foreign Minister Branko Perovic told Reuters recently.

"As a state we have had a difficult 20 days. And I think we passed this exam." -- Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, to "The New York Times" of April 15.

Germans "cannot escape our responsibility. That is why our soldiers are on their first combat mission since World War II�To stand by and watch these crimes would have been cynical and irresponsible." -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to the Bundestag on April 15.

"On one side [of the conflict], we have this machinery of war, crime, genocide, ethnic cleansing and deportation. On the other side, we seek democratic development, respect of human rights and political rights, as well as cooperation and integration in our region." -- Albanian President Rexhep Meidani, on April 14.