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Russia: Kosovo Conflict May Hurt Cohesion Of Federation

By Julie Corwin

Prague, 23 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Initially, at least, NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia appeared to unify Russia's political elite. They pushed both the scandal involving Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov and speculation about Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov's dismissal off the front pages of the Russian press. In addition, the rhetoric of groups along the political spectrum suddenly became remarkably similar as they all condemned NATO and the U.S.

But just a few weeks later there were signs that the fragile political peace was fraying and that the Balkan conflict has been absorbed into a variety of domestic political battles. These include the effort of political parties and their candidates to raise their profile in the regions before Duma elections, and the effort to forge a pan-Slavic union. So far, the results of this absorption suggest that the Yugoslav conflict may negatively affect the cohesion of the Russian Federation.

Already, proponents of expanding the Union of Belarus and Russia to include Yugoslavia have raised concerns among the leadership of Russia's Muslim population. Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov declared that he has no interest in joining any union with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic whom he holds personally responsible for the tragedy in the Balkans. President of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev suggested that if Yugoslavia was going to join the union, then the issue of upgrading the status of his republic and that of Tatarstan should be examined.

Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev himself raised objections to the recruitment of volunteers in his republic to fight in the conflict on the side of the Kosovar Albanians. He noted that since Russia is a multiethnic state, there should be no question of sending any volunteers since they could wind up on different sides.

But perhaps sensing an opportunity to generate publicity for their parties and movements in the regions, members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Spiritual Heritage, and the Popular Patriotic Front among others have reportedly amassed long lists of volunteers throughout Russia ready to fight in Yugoslavia. By the first week of April, LDPR claimed it had 70,000 volunteers signed up across Russia.

In addition to the possibility that volunteers from Russia could wind up shooting at each other, there is also the possibility that refugees from opposing sides of the war could confront each other on Russian territory. While a long list of regions have expressed their willingness to shelter Serb "victims of NATO air strikes," the Adygei Republic recently offered to take in a second batch of Kosovar residents of Adygei origin.

In the meantime, Russian President Boris Yeltsin continues to encourage the foreign policy aspirations of regional leaders, telling them early this week that "everything must originate in the regions, including proposals on foreign policy."

The result of such encouragement may be a splintering of the nation's single foreign policy into competing sub-components, the beginning of which we may now be witnessing.