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Balkan Report: August 19, 1998

19 August 1998, Volume 2, Number 33

'Eternal Friendship.' For well over a hundred years, politicians, journalists, and others in Russia or the Balkans have delighted in stressing the cultural, religious and other ties that bind Russians to either Serbs, Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, as the case may be. The late Prof. Barbara Jelavich, who was the leading postwar U.S. historian of Russian policy in the Balkans, never tired of telling her students, however, that pan-Slavic rhetoric may have excited publicists and their readers, but that foreign policy in St. Petersburg and Moscow was based on hard-headed state interests.

Even as the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia groped for a new role on the world stage, Moscow made it clear that it intended to retain its great power status at least in the Balkans. Accordingly, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev was actively involved in the peace process during the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. And, as Lord David Owen noted in his memoirs "Balkan Odyssey": "whenever Russia had to choose between its vital interests...and its sentimental came down on the side of interest" (p. 393).

In tsarist times, St. Petersburg's perception of its interests dictated whether at a given moment it supported - for example - Bulgaria's claims to Macedonia, or those of its Serbian rival. During the recent Bosnian conflict, one senior Russian diplomat did not disguise his displeasure in public after concluding that the Bosnian Serb leaders had "lied" to him.

This year, on August 6, against the backdrop of Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Afanasevskii's latest mission in Kosova shuttle diplomacy, "Izvestia" suggested that it was the Serbs who had often betrayed their generous Russian benefactor. "For Serb journalists and analysts it is an axiom that Russia should help their country. So they ask with indignation why Moscow is not in a hurry to do so and why it does not announce its readiness to take up arms and side with its ally in response to the West's threats...But let us not hurry with self-torture. If Serb journalists like historical analogy, we can remind them of some things that happened in the past."

The author continued: "When some people talk of the 'traditional friendship' between Russia and Serbia, one involuntarily wants to ask: When was this tradition born? The two countries had not been allies of long standing when World War I broke out. After the October 1917 revolution in Russia, they were completely isolated from each other. And I do not think that it is worth recalling the kind of 'strong friendship' that Moscow and Belgrade established after Josip Broz Tito had quarreled with Iosip Vissarionovich Stalin." And more: "Not only our inter-state relations were lukewarm. There was no much warmth at the personal level, either. The majority of Soviet people did not divide the people of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into Serbs, Croats or Slovenes. For us they all - Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims - were Yugoslavs. Yugoslavs, for their part - who could tour Europe without a visa and generally considered their own country as part of the West - often looked down on Russians.

The article concludes that "today, when Serbs are experiencing difficulties, when they have found themselves in complete isolation and set the whole of Europe against themselves, Belgrade suddenly remembers its Russian ally. {But] the history of Russian-Serbian relations irrefutably testifies to the fact that we owe nothing to the Balkan people. Russia has done more for the Serbs than it has ever received from them...They encroached on the fundamental principle of the inviolability of borders, thereby affecting not only Western but also Russian interests, because if, for instance, [the Krajina Serbs] were permitted to separate from Croatia today, Chechnya would refer to this precedent tomorrow."

For his part, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic does not feel bound by sentiment, either. U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke wrote of a talk with Milosevic in September, 1995: "He criticized the Russians, saying that they presumed to a far greater influence in Serbia, based on historic Slav-Serb ties, than was justified. He was scornful of Moscow's attempts to pressure or bribe the Serbs with aid - 'tons of rotten meat, and crap like that,' he said" (quoted in "To End a War," p. 114).

Serbia, Tradition, Democracy. Many observers feel that the key to the future stability and progress of the Balkans nonetheless lies with Serbia, given the large number of Serbs who live in the region and their geographically central position. And there are other Serbs who seek to present a different image than that projected in recent years by Milosevic and his followers.

The Serbian Orthodox monk Father Sava in Decan is the spokesman of Bishop Artemije. Both men oppose Milosevic and favor reconciliation between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Sava talked to AFP recently on the subject of the Serbian leadership's manipulation of the Kosova myth and of history: "it's an abuse of history and of religion. The past is important, but we shouldn't lose sight of reality. We insist on democracy in Serbia, because if you want someone to abandon extremist ideas, you have to offer him [an alternative]. Milosevic has a lot to answer for: he does not want to introduce democracy because he knows that will cost him his position....Serbs [in Kosova] are manipulated. Extremists like [Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav] Seselj give them arms to make them responsible for a war they cannot win. One day, we will have to live with the Albanians when they come back to their houses. The police and the army will leave. We're going to stay. And the Kosovar Serbs are going to be the great losers in all this."

Quote of the Week. "Mr. President, don't let ...terrorism in this part of the Balkans continue, in the Serbian state that for centuries has been a friend to your state." - Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" to U.S. President Bill Clinton, after the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, quoted by AP on August 10. Holbrooke described Arkan as the man who "virtually invented ethnic cleansing in 1991-92" (p. 189).