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Russia: Upper House Approves Kosovo Mission

Moscow, 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The upper house of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, today unanimously approved President Boris Yeltsin's request to authorize participation by 3,600 Russian troops in the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev emerged from the chamber's closed-door session to say that all of the 126 members present had voted for approval. The vote came after the Council's security and defense committees had both urged that Yeltsin's request be granted.

Under Russia's constitution, any dispatch of troops abroad must be approved by the Federation Council, which has 176 members.

There had been concern about the ability of Russia to fund the peacekeeping contingent. Estimates of the cost of maintaining the Russian force in Kosovo range from %60 to more than $100 million annually.

After the vote, a top Russian defense ministry official, General Leonid Ivashev, told journalists that the ministry calculated the annual cost would reach $69 million.

Ivashev said yesterday that he did not expect money to fund the operation to come from his ministry's budget. Today, he said that First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko had promised the government would "find the funds."

The first 200 Russian paratroopers rushed into Kosovo 12 days ago from Bosnia, where they had been serving in a NATO-led peacekeeping force. Their deployment in Kosovo came without waiting for agreement with NATO on their deployment. The Russians entered Kosovo hours before NATO troops, and quickly seized the province's airport in Pristina.

After the difficult bilateral talks in Helsinki that followed, Russian and U.S. representatives finally reached a compromise on the peacekeepers' deployment. Russia agreed that its troops will not have their own sector, as it had originally demanded, but will work alongside French, U.S. and German peacekeepers.

After today's vote, Ivashev and other officials said that Yeltsin -- who is the commander-in-chief of Russia's armed forces -- would now sign a decree stipulating when the first paratroop divisions will be dispatched to Yugoslavia.

Yesterday, in Kosovo's capital Pristina, both NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and British General Michael Jackson, the commander of the multinational operation, spoke about the timing of the coming deployment of Russian troops. Solana:

"Once the Federation Council in Moscow has agreed to the deployment of Russian forces, I anticipate that they will arrive shortly."

General Jackson commented specifically on the timetable of Russian and NATO flights into Pristina airport.

"From the day after [Federation Council approval] to the fourth day, six flights are arranged for Russian aircraft and six flights for other KFOR aircraft which bring in the air field opening party. We hope to get [the airport] up and running in about a week after that."

Jackson has consistently played down the issue of control of the airport, which has been in Russia's hands since its troops rushed into Kosovo earlier this month. But the joint sharing of the facility between Russian and NATO troops should make the logistics of bringing in and supplying KFOR operations in Kosovo much easier.

The English-language daily Moscow Times said today that some 1,200 members of the Tula Paratroop Division -- about a third of the planned Russian force -- have been on alert for almost three weeks in their barracks 200 kilometers south of Moscow. The report quoted soldiers as saying that promised high pay -- estimated by their officers at about $1,070 dollars -- made their mission highly attractive. Regular monthly pay for Russian soldiers is about 2,000 rubles, the equivalent of $83.

Captain Vladimir Beloskursky, who said he fought in Chechnya, told the daily that the troops' mission amounts to what he called "a bitter question of finances." But he added that if there were an order, they would go, "pay or no pay." According to other Russian media reports, the soldiers selected for the operation had to meet a very strict list of skills, including strong discipline, as well as satisfy other psychological requirements.

Today's Council vote reflected a widespread feeling in Russian political and military circles that Moscow has effectively forced NATO to concede it an important role in KFOR, the international force in Kosovo. There had been little doubt that the operation would be approved in the upper house. But some of the Council's ranking members nevertheless spoke out against Russia's taking part in KFOR, and 50 members simply did not show up for the vote.

One of those absent was the influential Tatarstan President, Mintimer Shaimiyev. He said yesterday that it would be too dangerous to send Russian troops to Kosovo.

The ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army has said the paratroopers would not be welcome because Russian mercenaries allegedly took part in war-time Serb atrocities.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said that the Russian government had no information about any Russian volunteers having fought in Kosovo. But during the first weeks of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, several Russian nationalist organizations openly collected funds to send volunteers to fight in the Serbian province.

The main concern of Federation Council members, however, focused on the federal government's ability to fund the Russian contingent. Members were clearly reluctant to see the money taken out of their own regional budgets.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the Kalmykia republic, said: "As a citizen of the Russian Federation, as a patriot, of course [I think] the troops should go there. But as a [regional] governor, I am faced each day with problems in paying pensions, wages, maternity leave."

Konstantin Titov, chairman of the Federation Council's budget committee and governor of the Volga region of Samara, warned against Russia being sucked into a dangerous ethnic cauldron. Titov said: "We live in a multinational state, we have more than 30 million people who are Russian citizens, but who are Chuvash, Tatar, Jewish, German....And we are about to get mixed up in an ethnic conflict that is largely based on a confrontation between two different religions."