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Russia: Yeltsin Wants To Mediate Yugoslav Conflict

Moscow, 19 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin says Russia is ready to mediate between NATO and Yugoslavia to end the crisis in Kosovo.

He made the comment after meeting with senior officials today at the Kremlin. Yeltsin is scheduled to speak on the telephone with U.S. president Bill Clinton today in what is believed to be the first conversation between the two since NATO began air attacks on Yugoslavia last month.

In remarks quoted by Interfax, Yeltsin again made use of the harsh vocabulary that has characterized statements of most Russian officials since the beginning of the air strikes. He said NATO and the U.S. want to "have victory" and "turn Yugoslavia into a protectorate." He said Russia would not allow that.

However, Yeltsin seemed more to be courting Russian public opinion than threatening any military action. With public opinion clearly against the strikes all politicians, including Yeltsin, are obliged to criticize NATO in public.

In a sign the conversation with Clinton today will likely have a more moderate tone, especially if Russia really aims at playing a mediating role, Yeltsin also said no Black Sea Fleet ships will be dispatched to the Adriatic anytime soon.

Attending the meeting were Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's personal envoy to settle the conflict. The meeting did not appear to produce new initiatives. However, in television footage broadcast after it ended, it seemed clear that Chernomyrdin's stance, more pragmatic and less anti-Western, is becoming predominant.

Chernomyrdin told NTV television that it is necessary to work with both sides -- Yugoslavia and NATO -- to achieve a peaceful settlement.

In Chernomyrdin's words, "we are ready to work with all sides -- with Yugoslavia, as well as with the NATO leadership."

Ivanov, speaking after Chernomyrdin, seemed to take a less flexible approach. In Ivanov's words, Russia is "prepared to cooperate closely with whomever is interested in trying to resolve the situation politically."

Ivanov did not mention cooperation with NATO, but said that "nearly a month of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia have confirmed the Russian position that this problem cannot be resolved militarily.

Chernomyrdin's appointment as Yeltsin's special envoy on Yugoslavia appears to cast a shadow over Primakov. Moscow has been awash with rumors of Yeltsin's wish to reshuffle the cabinet.

Most observers in the Russian capital say if Chernomyrdin makes real or perceived progress in the conflict, he will improve Russia's weak international standing and damage Primakov's reputation as an experienced diplomat and international peacemaker.

Yeltsin today said there are no contradictions between Primakov and Chernomyrdin and asked the Russian media to avoid speculating on the issue.