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Yugoslavia: Kostunica Looks To Moscow For Continued Help

Newly-elected Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is due in Moscow tomorrow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at how relations between Moscow and Belgrade may develop after the fall from power of Slobodan Milosevic.

Moscow, 26 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vojislav Kostunica's talks with Vladimir Putin will set the tone for Belgrade's post-Milosevic relationship with the former dictator's staunchest supporter in Europe. Tomorrow (Friday) afternoon, Kostunica will meet with Putin to discuss what the Russian leader this week called "economic, political, and humanitarian matters -- a program of developing relations with Yugoslavia."

The meeting should help ease a painful start.

After last month's Yugoslav presidential elections, Russia backed the initial official results that denied Kostunica a first-round victory and would have led to a run-off election. The European Union and the United States, on the other hand, were quick to denounce Milosevic's attempted vote-counting fraud and acclaimed Kostunica the winner.

At the time, Kostunica reacted sourly to Russia's stand. As for Moscow, it later tried to make up for its diplomatic blunder by boasting that it had actually brought about Milosevic's fall by finally withdrawing its support. But last week a spokesman for the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the coalition that brought Kostunica to power, said it owed Moscow "nothing."

Russian analysts agree that with Milosevic no longer in power, Moscow's influence in Belgrade will inevitably decline. Yugoslavia, they acknowledge, wants to end its long isolation and desperately needs the economic support that only the EU and the United States can provide. But some Russian experts say that Russia will maintain some influence, even if far less than before.

Aleksandr Zadokhin heads the foreign relations department of Moscow's Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats, and is the author of a book on the Balkans entitled "Europe's Powder Keg." He told RFE/RL that Russia can maintain some influence by continuing to play its historical role in the area:

"One way or another, Russia should be a balancing element in the Balkans, in relations among the Balkan states and [in their relations] with Western countries or Turkey. Russia remains a factor in the Balkans. And my view is that this is already imprinted on the [collective] unconscious of the Balkan peoples. They need Russia as an important cultural reference, an important geopolitical reference."

Another leading Russian specialist on the Balkans, Pavel Kandel, says the new relationship between Moscow and Belgrade will not necessarily be entirely negative for Russia. He points out that Russia has now lost the stigma of backing a pariah state.

"I don't think Russia has more chance [of increasing its influence in the area]. On the contrary, I think it has considerably less chance -- but [some influence] can be maintained. Also, Russia has now gotten rid of a large number of problems that Milosevic created not only for his enemies but also for his allies."

Kandel says Moscow is now likely to adopt a more sober approach toward Yugoslavia, abandoning the more bombastic accents of the pan-Slavic rhetoric that portrayed Moscow and Belgrade as Orthodoxy's last bulwark against a domineering West. That may be so, but Kostunica has nonetheless scheduled a meeting tomorrow with Patriarch Aleksei II for talks on relations between the two Orthodox countries.

Kandel says, too, that even during the last years of the Milosevic era, Moscow discreetly kept up relations with the Yugoslav opposition. In May, he notes, the Foreign Ministry received a delegation of opposition figures that included Vojislav Kostunica.

Kandel believes that it will soon become obvious that the Balkans are not -- and, he says, never were -- a foreign-policy priority for Russia. But he adds, at the same time, Russia is not likely to leave the region entirely -- because, as Yugoslavia's only gas supplier, it wields an important economic lever.

"[Russia's influence is based, first and foremost,] on gas deliveries under very beneficial conditions for Yugoslavia, with continual debt deferments. It has now again become very urgent for Yugoslavia to restructure its gas debts and to get guarantees of smooth gas supplies -- that's especially urgent with winter coming."

The restructuring of Yugoslavia's gas debt to Moscow is expected to be discussed at tomorrow's high-level meeting. Ironically, a bilateral economic accord signed in August by Milosevic's government could serve Kostunica well. The agreement provides for tariff-free trade on a number of commodities, including oil and gas.

Kandel says that Russia could prove to be an important market for Yugoslavia as long as its products are unable to compete in European markets. Yesterday, Kostunica was quoted (by Interfax) as saying that he hoped to pay back some of Yugoslavia's gas debts in barter. "Yugoslavia needs help," he said, "and is convinced that Russia will help."

But Putin himself indicated this week that Russia's economic assistance to Yugoslavia will probably be limited. He told a French television interviewer that "it would be just for NATO member states to assume the burden of the damages suffered by Yugoslavia [during last year's air strikes by the alliance]."

As for political relations, Belgrade is likely still to find a sympathetic ear in Moscow for some of its complaints about the West. Belgrade will be counting on Russia to push for the strict implementation of United Nations resolution 1244 on Kosovo. Among other things, the resolution provides for a limited number of Yugoslav forces entering the province to secure its external borders and to protect Serbian monuments.

Belgrade also wants Moscow's support in abolishing all remaining economic sanctions against Yugoslavia. Both the EU and the United States have lifted general sanctions against Yugoslavia, but left in place financial and visa restrictions related to Milosevic himself and to his former top cohorts in government.

In Belgrade this week (Oct 24), the chairman of the Russian State Duma's international affairs committee, Dmitry Rogozin, called the remaining sanctions "a form of blackmail." They were, he said, aimed at forcing Kostunica into additional concessions to the West.