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Russia: Politicians Angry, People Concerned

Moscow, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's political elite is reacting angrily to the start of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia. Among other Russians, concerned with growing economic hardship, the reaction is more varied.

In a speech on Russian television shortly before NATO air strikes began late yesterday, President Boris Yeltsin said he had talked by telephone with U.S. President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac about Kosovo. He then said that air strikes would be "a blow at the entire international community." Yeltsin ended by urging listeners to join efforts to persuade Clinton to call off the bombing:

"I ask you to join the indignation of all Russia. Indignation! We, of course, are doing all that we can on our part. But we cannot do everything. That is we can do everything, but our conscience does not allow us to. Let us, after all, stop Clinton on this path. Let us help him not to commit this tragic step, tragic step!"

After the air strikes began, the Kremlin issued a statement calling them "an outright aggression" against a sovereign state. It said that Russia, in case of an expanding military conflict due to NATO strikes, reserves the right to take what it called "adequate measures," including military ones, to guarantee its own security and security in Europe. No details of possible measures were given.

However, Moscow is again reviewing its relations with NATO, just as it has amid recent tensions over the Alliance's expansion and over U.S. and British air strikes against Iraq. Russia yesterday recalled its representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels and halted participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

These are serious moves, underlying Russia's anger and the deterioration of Russia's relations with NATO. However, most observers in Moscow say that one of the strongest moves Russia could resort to would be the delivery of military supplies to Yugoslavia. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has made clear that Russia would reconsider its commitment to the international arms embargo imposed by the UN on Yugoslavia in the event of NATO strikes.

But how is the crisis over Kosovo viewed outside Moscow? Regional correspondents of RFE/RL's Russian service asked officials and citizens in a number of regions to express their views.

In the Volga republic of Mari-El, most people tended to agree with the Kremlin view and the government's first reactions to the strikes.

Some people protested in particular to what they called the "function of international policeman" that they said the U.S. has assumed. One of the people interviewed, businessman Andrei Voronyuk, said that Russia's reaction means the country keeps to its principles. He added that "if today we give up, tomorrow [the U.S.] will impose their decisions on us."

In the Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, our correspondent reports that opinion seemed divided. While some people said Russia should take an active part in the conflict on Yugoslavia's side, others said that Russia in no case should participate directly in military operations. According to former regional governor Valery Zubov, NATO strikes "come at the peak of American hegemony, but after [the conflict in Yugoslavia] there will inevitably be a fall of American authority." He said Russia should "pause and solve its internal problems."

Opinions seemed divided also in the Ural's republic of Udmurtia, where one person interviewed expressed concern over possible developments, while another said NATO air strikes are "the right decision."

In Tula, south of Moscow, pragmatic feelings seem to prevail, particularly among representatives of military industries that are at the center of the region's economy.

Some of them told our correspondent that, even if Russia were to send military supplies to Yugoslavia, it is unlikely that regional military industries will benefit. They said they believe Russia would send to Yugoslavia existing weaponry and added that if orders for new equipment would come, it is unlikely the bankrupt Russian government could pay for them.

Meanwhile, local representatives of all political parties expressed readiness to organize meetings in support of Yugoslavia. Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is expected to visit Tula soon.

Back in Moscow, the first protest rallies against NATO strikes were held yesterday even before the bombing began. Some 50 supporters of Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party protested in front of diplomatic facilities of NATO countries.

Some 100 communist protesters picketed the U.S. Embassy yesterday afternoon under a banner reading "hands off Yugoslavia."

Another 100 people, including Serb citizens living in Moscow, protested the start of NATO air strikes near the U.S. embassy last night, throwing eggs at the building. Zhirinovsky addressed the crowd:

"Bury the last American soldier and cut off all relations with this bandit state [the United States]. Curse America!"

But the reaction among many other Muscovites to the situation in Kosovo is very different. Some argue that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov made a mistake in canceling a visit to the U.S. this week because of differences over the Kosovo crisis. His visit had been set to begin Tuesday, and was to include talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over rescheduling Russian debt. But Primakov ordered his plane to turn back over the Atlantic after U.S. officials told him air strikes on Yugoslavia were imminent.

Critics of Primakov's decision, made in consultation with Yeltsin, called it an old-fashioned Cold War-style move. They also said it gave a fatal blow to Russia's chances of reaching a desperately needed agreement with the IMF.

The Russian currency, the ruble, fell to an all-time low of 26 to the dollar yesterday in afternoon bank trading. The ruble has been falling gradually since its effective devaluation last August.

Some Moscow newspapers had a first, furious reaction to Primakov's decision. The daily Kommersant published a front-page headline yesterday arguing that "Russia lost $15 billion thanks to Primakov".

During his U.S. visit, the prime minister had been scheduled to meet with top U.S. and IMF officials to negotiate a new loan that could help avert a potentially ruinous default on Russia's debt repayment obligations. Major payments are due in May.

Since most analyst had said that a positive decision would have reflected purely political concerns, the worsening of relations between Russia and NATO could mean the withdrawal of vital Western support, with dire consequences for Russia's economy and already fast declining living standards.