Humiliated Russians Flirt with Pan-Slavism


February 08, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- A serious and underestimated aspect of what goes on in the Balkans and in Russia is the rise of pan-Slavism. The Russian authorities have recently made known their increasing uneasiness about the potential political consequences in Russia any Western military intervention against the Serbs in Yugoslavia. The Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, last week formally made known Russia's opposition to any Western military measures against Serbia.

There are some extreme figures in Russia who already demand active Russian intervention on Serbia's side. They are part of a larger movement that sees Russia's future in the reuniting of Russians outside the country's present borders into a new Greater Russia, and then extending Russian protection and alliance to the Slavs of Eastern Europe. Some, such as the writer Eduard Limonov, formerly an expelled Soviet exile in New York, wish to see the ethnic cleansing of Russia itself and the reincorporation into Russia of the Baltic republics and other areas of minority Russian settlement.

Mr. Limonov has already spent a brief period doing ''war tourism'' in Bosnia, a few days in a ''Chetnik'' (irregular) unit there, firing down from the surrounding mountains at people in Sarajevo. Did he kill anyone? ''It's hard to say,'' he told the London press. ''I was firing with 9mm and 12mm machine-guns and Kalashnikovs.'' The range actually is rather distant for such weapons. But the BBC's correspondent, Misha Glenny, is witness to Mr. Limonov's having done his best to kill some Sarajevans.

The pan-Slav forces at work in Russia are rather more serious than Mr. Limonov's adventures might lead one to think. The Serbian government certainly has been doing its best to bring Russia to its diplomatic assistance, if not into the war itself on Serbia's side. It brandishes the threat that if the West attacks Serbia, ''East-West war begins.''

''These extremists and marginal types should not obscure the fact that the great majority of Russians, and the government itself, want this affair settled peacefully,'' an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry reassures the Western press. But the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Kozyrev, caused a sensation in December at a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe by giving a speech threatening Russian intervention in Serbia on behalf of its Slavic brothers.

An hour later, he said it had all been a joke -- but a serious one, meant to warn the West what it should expect if conservative forces take power in Moscow. In Moscow, the majority of the Russian Parliament subsequently made its feelings known: that Russia's close alignment with the United States in controversies concerning not only Serbia but the Middle East is humiliating to Russians. What has happened, they asked, to Russia the superpower, practicing its own global policies?

Pan-Slavism was a German invention -- paradoxically enough, in view of what later passed between Germany and Russia. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder argued in the 18th century that the rural and uneducated Slavs of that period were superior to the sophisticated Germans and French because they were closer to nature and to spiritual truths. Germans subsequently were the great scholars of the Slavic languages and Slavic history.

As Russia became more important as a European power, the emergent Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe looked to Moscow for protection and support. It was, of course, Russia's intervention in support of Serbia against Austria-Hungary in 1914 that turned what began as an Austrian punishment of Serbian terrorism -- the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo -- into World War I.

In Russia itself, from the time of Peter the Great, the debate has gone on as to whether Russians should accept advanced Western models of economy and political organization, or whether the Slavic and Russian spirit requires rejection of the West and the pursuit of a unique destiny.

This argument obviously continues today between these pan-Slav nationalists who want Russia to reject the West and aid Serbia, and the men around Boris Yeltsin and other reformers who are trying to give Russia a modern economy and government, and to make it a partner of the democratic West.

For this reason the Yugoslav crisis has been an unneeded and unwanted complication to the West's relations with Moscow. It is tempting to reject the pan-Slavs in Russia as sinister but trivial people. They certainly are marginal figures today, so far as political influence is concerned, offering totally unrealistic responses to the real problems facing Russia (and Serbia, for that matter).

But as the Russian economic situation deteriorates and inflation escapes control, irrational men can come into their own. Hyperinflation is a world of unreason, in which it is the reasonable man who is at a loss. When you add international crisis and war to the mixture, reasonable men and women in the West as well as the East have reason for concern.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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