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South Slavic: March 16, 2000

16 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 10

Can Russia And China Save Milosevic? Part I

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss to what extent its present reliance on China and Russia might help Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime to survive. Our guests are Vladimir Veres, a research fellow of the Belgrade Center for Strategic Studies, and Dusan Lazic, an experienced diplomat and member of the Forum for International Relations. Part II will appear on 23 March.

Milosevic has obviously been trying to strengthen relations with Russia for quite some time now, hoping that forces willing to confront the West would prevail there. He is probably expecting that Russia in that case would become a mighty protector of his regime. Are his expectations realistic?

Veres: Those expectations are definitely not realistic, since what we have here is a misunderstanding of political changes that have occurred in Russia in the last ten years. It is true that present relations between Russia and the West are not harmonious and that there are serious problems between them, but the antagonism that existed between the East and the West during the Cold War has been absolutely overcome. Today they are partners who solve their problems through talks and negotiations.

Therefore, although the Belgrade regime thinks that it could still draw some tactical profit from some situations--like, for example, the one we have now in Chechnya--it is obvious that in the long run there will not and cannot be a serious confrontation between Russia and the West over Yugoslavia or any other similar problem.

We are talking here about [Milosevic's] deceiving his population and spreading through propaganda the illusion that this regime, helped by Moscow and China, might retain its position over the long term.

Lazic: I think that this regime's attempt to make our country join the Union State of Russia and Belarus does not serve interests of Serbia and Yugoslavia. It might serve the interests of the Belgrade regime which--in order to postpone its end--thinks that by joining the union, it could "protect" itself from the West, NATO, and the United States of America. But our country can actually only be harmed by it.

On the other hand, the regime is not even carrying out its own policy in a serious fashion. Joining a union with another state--especially one with a great power, such as Russia--should previously be thoroughly analyzed, exposed to different views, and eventually decided by the parliament and the federal government, as well as by other appropriate institutions.

Nevertheless, the decision that Yugoslavia should join the Union State of Russia and Belarus was taken by the federal parliament, in which the second federal unit, Montenegro, does not take part. The decision was also taken by the federal government that is not recognized by Montenegro. Therefore, the constitutional right of one federal unit--in this case Montenegro--to take part in deciding on such an important issue, was usurped.

Would it be realistic, Mr. Veres, to expect that Yugoslavia might join the three-nation union with Russia and Belarus? Could it really happen or is it just propaganda for domestic consumption?

Veres: For the moment, it is primarily a political and propaganda story for the home public. One can nonetheless expect some forms of closer cooperation. This is because Russia might decide to undertake them for its own tactical purposes to show the West that it, too, has a firm ally in Europe.

Nevertheless, in that case, Russia will be very, very cautious. You know that Yugoslavia decided to join the union in April last year, during the bombing campaign. The very first reaction in Russia was a warning that Yugoslavia at that moment was a country at war. Russia thus bears in mind that Yugoslavia is a country with very bad relations with the West, that it has no diplomatic relations with the leading countries of the world, and that a sort of a union with Yugoslavia would instantly cause serious political problems for Russia. This is why Russia will watch matters very carefully and limit itself to forms of cooperation that do not commit it very much.

Finally, the union with Belarus is more or less a formal one. It is considered in Moscow that there will not be concrete forms of cooperation until 2005. The point is that Yugoslavia, trying to push Russia into a conflict with the West, actually conducts a policy that runs against not only its own, Yugoslav, interests, but also Russian ones. The last thing Russia needs at this moment is a conflict with its key economic, technological, and ultimately political partners in today's world.

Could [acting President Vladimir] Putin become Milosevic's main source of support, Mr. Lazic? Is not the destruction of Grozny very similar to the destruction of, for example, Vukovar? Milosevic's official propaganda might use Grozny to justify Vukovar or to compare, for example, Chechnya with Bosnia.

Lazic: Yugoslav official propaganda is already doing that. It seeks to prove that the Belgrade regime's policy during the Yugoslav wars--including things that happened in Kosovo--were the only possible way to preserve the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, to secure its sovereignty, and to protect the national rights of the Serbian people. Nevertheless, [the Yugoslav and Chechen conflicts] are completely different and cannot be compared.

Veres: Russian politicians quite often compare Chechnya with Kosovo (instead of with Bosnia), but one must bear in mind that, in spite of the disagreement between Russia and the West over Chechnya, Moscow has recently obtained a very favorable arrangement from the London Club. More than a third of the debt Russia inherited from the Soviet Union was written off.

The West is simply being pragmatic. Putin's administration is, at this moment, the only one that the West is counting on in the long term. The West would certainly not be happy with a Zyuganov victory, and he is Putin's only serious rival. NATO's Secretary General Lord Robertson recently concluded an agreement with Moscow concerning the partial restoration of relations between Russia and NATO. It all shows that, unless something goes wrong in Chechnya, the present troubled relations between Russia and the West will be overcome in next few months.

The second pillar Milosevic is leaning on for his survival is China. The authorities are trying to strengthen their political and economic ties with China. Similarly, Chinese statesmen have words of praise for Milosevic's regime. What is the real Chinese interest in supporting Milosevic? Are we talking here about a strategic interest, or is China simply trying to complicate things for the West in this region?

Lazic: China has its own internal problems--Tibet, Taiwan etc.--and therefore its interests can sometimes dovetail with Belgrade's interests. Nevertheless, that does not mean that China is unquestioningly supporting Milosevic's regime, or that it is supporting this regime in a way that could bring real dividends [for Milosevic].

Let me remind you that China has never vetoed a single United Nations decision concerning Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav crisis. China has always been able to find common ground with the international community, more precisely with its most developed and the most important part. Beijing also avoids unnecessary conflicts.

China has its strategic interests, and one of them is to join the World Trade Organization. It will put up with many things in order to realize those long-term interests. The same goes with Russia. Basically, both Russia and China are adjusting to modern trends in international relations and want to establish a partnership with the West, especially with the United States.

Mr. Veres, what do you think is the real Chinese interest in being so benevolent towards Milosevic's regime?

Veres: I think that there are two elements to be considered. First, although less important, there is a political and ideological closeness. This is not very important for China, but it still always tries to have an ideological ally in Europe. We all remember that, for a long period, it was Albania. Now there is no one else left but Yugoslavia to be such an ally.

An even more important thing is that China has a quite complicated relationship with the West. This relationship is marked by the burdens of human rights abuses, Taiwan, and Tibet. [This leads to ambiguity.] Thus, on the one hand, China is interested in developing this relationship, while on the other hand, it wants to make these relations more balanced by occasionally making moves that irritate the West. It does this to remind Washington in particular that China continues to pursue its own interests.

Nevertheless, what really matters is that in Belgrade's political propaganda both the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are considered the main instruments of the allegedly U.S.-run "new world order." But China and Russia, for their parts, are making great efforts to achieve the best possible arrangements with those organizations and become members. The biggest foreign investments in China are American. Neither Moscow nor Beijing want to spoil those fundamental relations.

Nevertheless, as far as some tactical issues are concerned--for example Taiwan--ways can be found to parry the American influence. In that context, Yugoslavia might play a certain role in Sino-American relations, but one should not overestimate that role. Yugoslavia is not big or important enough to influence relations between those two superpowers.

Mr. Lazic, how important is the communist factor in Chinese policy towards Milosevic's regime, as mentioned by Mr. Veres? Could one say that China considers Serbia--with representatives of [Mirjana Markovic's hard-line] United Yugoslav Left in the government--the last communist oasis in Europe?

Lazic: I would not overestimate the importance of the ideological factor in Chinese foreign policy. Certainly there is a certain element of ideology in Chinese external policy, but China is a big country with a long history of civilization and culture. It conducts its foreign policy in order to promote its basic national interests. This is how it sees international problems, trying in the first place to create the best possible conditions for its development, which includes full international, political, and economic relations [with all important actors on the world stage].