Washington, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. congressman warns that Russian diplomatic efforts in the Kosovo crisis could result in strengthening President Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslavia's ruler.
Republican Congressman Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, made the comment Wednesday at a hearing on Russian foreign policy.
Gilman said many members of Congress are trying to asses whether current Russian foreign policy objectives in the Balkans are supportive or obstructive of U.S. goals. The New York lawmaker said Congress also wonders about the long-term impact of a contemplated Russian presence in Serbia as part of an international peacekeeping force.
"How can we truly assess Russia's future role and influence in Serbia if we fail to consider what influence its potentially growing presence there might have on our efforts to help democratize Serbia someday? In fact, we should ask whether Russian diplomacy won't simply result in the strengthening of Slobodan Milosevic as ruler of Serbia."
Stephen Sestanovich, an ambassador at large and special advisor to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the New Independent States, was the main witness at the hearing. He told members of the House committee that Russian diplomacy on the Kosovo crisis should continue to be welcomed by the U.S., as should the prospect of Russian participation in a peacekeeping force.
"Our interest in working with Russia to resolve the Kosovo crisis is but one example of an ambitious effort to deal cooperatively with the problems of European security."
He added that Russia has been, and should remain, a "vital partner" in this effort.
Sestanovich said Russian diplomatic efforts to settle the crisis, including the search for a series of principles that could be the basis for a political settlement of the conflict, should been considered positively. He also said the meeting in Oslo last month between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and the G-7 plus Russia meeting last week in Germany of the foreign ministers have been useful steps. The meeting of the world's leading industrial democracies and Russia discussed a full set of principles, including the deployment of a strong international security presence in Kosovo.
However, Sestanovich said before discussions on a full agreement can be reached on Kosovo, the NATO allies and Russia will need to conduct more detailed discussions, especially on the need for a full withdrawal of Serb forces, and on the nature of the military force which would enforce a settlement.
"We welcome Russia's movement toward joining the growing international consensus on this conflict, just as we welcome the prospect of Russian participation in a peacekeeping force."
Sestanovich acknowledged that the Kosovo crisis has put new strains on U.S.-Russian relations. But he added that the relationship was strong and both countries had enough common goals and interest to survive the crisis.
"Russia's cooperation with NATO seems likely to be on hold for the duration of the crisis, but the framework for this cooperation -- the NATO-Russia Founding Act -- remains intact. So do the interests, both Russian and American, that led to its creation in the first place. On this basis, we should expect both sides to be making active use of this framework once the Kosovo crisis is behind us."
Sestanovich also commented on Russian President Boris Yeltsin's firing of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov Wednesday, suggesting the action may be linked to pending Duma impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin.
Sestanovich said that Yeltsin, in effect, put another item on the table for the Duma to address -- the confirmation of a new prime minister. He said this will force Russian lawmakers to decide which one to consider first: Yeltsin's impeachment or the confirmation of a new prime minister.
However, during press briefings on Wednesday, both the State Department and White House spokesmen declined to discuss Yeltsin's motive in firing the prime minister, saying it was an internal Russian matter.