The Russian Hand in Serbia

August 04, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The position of Russia with respect to Serbia is more complex than commonly credited. It has also evolved, as the political situation inside Russia has evolved.

It is not true that Russia is the Serbs' ''ally.'' The Russian government finds the Serbs today a nuisance and lTC embarrassment, as its public statements in recent days have made plain. However, Moscow has also been able to make use of Serbia in its own rehabilitation as a world power, at Serbia's expense. Further complicating the matter is that the Serbs' situation is a factor in Russian internal politics.

Russia is not moved by pan-Slav sentiments. Bosnians and Croatians are Slavs too. The Serbs, like the Russians, are Orthodox in religion, but the resultant political ties have proved slender; Christian motivation is not evident in either Russian or Serbian policy. The Russian people, pious or otherwise, have more urgent things to concern them than the adventures of the Serbs in a war Serbia chose to begin for its own aggrandizement.

Russia's policy toward Serbia is the result of internal political considerations and the shifting balance of power in Moscow of democratic and nationalist forces, and between the enemies and the friends of Boris Yeltsin. It is greatly affected by Moscow's perception of American policy and American motives, often inaccurate or exaggerated.

When the Yugoslav war began, democratic forces in Russia sympathized with those Serbs opposing the national-communist Slobodan Milosevic and accepted the idea that recognizing Slovenia and Croatia as independent countries would help stabilize the situation. This was also a tumultuous period when the Russian government really had no foreign policy. As one well-placed Russian analyst has noted, ''There was a minister of foreign affairs, but no ministry.''

An important part of the political class believed then, and believes now, that Russia's long-term interest lies in cooperation with the Western powers. In Yugoslavia, Russia was naturally in a position to serve as intermediary between the Western powers and Serbia. It assumed this crucial role in 1993 -- to the alarm of many in the West, for whom it represented the ''return of $H Russia'' to the Balkans.

Other groups in Moscow have supported closer relations with the Milosevic government or have made common cause with extreme Serbian nationalists, in order to fire nationalist sentiments in Russia and embarrass Mr. Yeltsin. Their actions have little or nothing intrinsically to do with Serbia, but are directed to influencing the domestic power struggle in Russia.

There are also those in Moscow, among them people from the democratic opposition, who have concluded that Washington's policy on the Yugoslav war -- meaning the rhetorical support the Clinton administration and Congress have given the predominantly Muslim Bosnian government, and Washington's threat to lift the arms embargo -- expresses an American aim to dismember not only Yugoslavia but, eventually, Russia itself.

Here we enter the clouded zone of European, and particularly East European and Russian, political paranoia. It is taken for granted that Washington has a long-term program to weaken rivals and prevent the emergence of new power centers. If you argue that American foreign policy and Washington politics are both driven by extremely short-term domestic political and ''image'' considerations, you are not, in these circles, taken seriously.

However, Russian policy today remains in the hands of people who possess a reasoned and realistic view of Western motivations and who understand that Russia's long-term interest lies in becoming a full partner in the international concert of advanced industrial states and liberal democracies. For domestic political reasons they cannot simply endorse what the West proposes. Nonetheless, the role they have played in Yugoslavia so far has been constructive, and given the limits constraining that role, will continue to be constructive.

It is important that this continues. The West itself is internally divided on what to do about Yugoslavia. Americans are disposed to take a moral view, wanting to arm and aid the Bosnians, victims of aggression. France and Britain say that the partial cease-fire of recent weeks represents progress and that preserving it, while looking for incremental improvements, is better for everyone. The Russian view and the West European tend to reinforce one another.

The great danger of the Yugoslav war is that the Serbs succeed in imposing their own apocalyptic vision of a redivided and warring Europe upon everyone else drawn into the crisis. Thus far they have failed to do so. Despite their disagreements, the Western powers and Russia have managed to speak with one voice. They have made some progress toward peace. But even if they make no progress at all, it is of fundamental importance that they continue to act together and take great pains to understand one another.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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