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Russia: Volunteers Offer To Fight In Yugoslavia

Vladivostok, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) - Three young policemen in camouflage walked this week into a Vladivostok office decorated with posters of Russian ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The policemen -- who said they serve in a special weapons and tactics unit -- had heard radio broadcasts saying that Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is recruiting volunteers to fight in Yugoslavia. They said they want to go to war against the United States, whose fighter jets, laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles are an integral part of the NATO air strikes now underway against Yugoslavia.

A 20-year-old police officer who gave his name only as "Vitaly" said he and his companions "will go with pleasure" to fight in Serbia. He said it's because of their "patriotic feelings", adding "We are ready to defend our brothers".

Officials at the Moscow headquarters of Zhirinovsky's party claim that thousands of people from across Russia are responding to calls from various political organizations to help defend Yugoslavia against what they fear is a coming invasion by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Zhirinovsky's spokesman in Vladivostok, Sergei Kazantsev, told our correspondent that in the Primorye region in Russia's Far East, 91 people volunteered on the day after the NATO air strikes began last week. Vladivostok is a navy port with a population of 700,000.

Russian media -- and in particular the television networks -- have reported extensively on the activity of such centers, based mainly in the regional offices of ultra-nationalist political movements. In addition, some of Russia's more well-established political organizations, such as the Communist Party, have also joined the call for volunteers to fight in Yugoslavia.

Exactly what role volunteers from Russia might play in Yugoslavia is largely unclear. The Russian government hasn't sanctioned such a movement, and legislation could be required to permit Russian citizens to legally join a foreign force en masse.

Russia and Yugoslavia's Serbian people have been historic allies since they fought together against Turkey in the last century. Both nations follow the Orthodox Church and speak Slavic languages. But the NATO strikes against Yugoslavia appear to have touched a nerve that runs deeper than just the two nations' linguistic and religious kinship.

Many Russians today feel their country is being ignored, sidelined as a second-rate power whose concerns weigh little in western decisions, and they are deeply resentful. Russians are also acutely aware of their own internal problems -- wage arrears, collapsing industry, an economic free-fall -- and many take the NATO strikes as a dramatic indication of the depth of Western contempt for their struggling society.

Eighteen-year-old Pavel Zelyunko -- a law student and youth activist in the Liberal Democratic Party -- says he is "sick and tired" of what he sees as U.S. President Bill Clinton's humiliation of Russia. Zelyunko says that if the U.S. and NATO attacked Yugoslavia without getting permission from the United Nations, what is preventing a similar attack against Russia?

Our correspondent says that many Russians across the country share similar fears. They believe Yugoslavia's war against ethnic Albanians seeking independence for Kosovo is legally no different from Russia's war in its own breakaway republic of Chechnya.

In Vladivostok, crowds of up to 50 people have protested outside the U.S. consulate while similar demonstrations were held across Russia. Susan Krause -- public affairs officer at the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok -- said she is not surprised by the protests, given the dramatic nature of the situation in Yugoslavia.

Officials from parties recruiting volunteers to fight in Yugoslavia show little concern about the financial aspects of such an operation. When the policemen showed up at Zhirinovsky's headquarters in Vladivostok, they first wanted to know how much they would be paid. Spokesman Kazantsev told them everything would be worked out in due time.

He told the policemen they will find out how much they will be paid for their services after they arrive in Kosovo. He continued: "It might be in a week, or a month. It will depend on how long the bombing goes on. There will be a plan waiting for you, and payment terms will be discussed."