Washington -- IN CASE anyone is confused about which way official Russia is heading, I commend to your rapt attention the deliberate and most unconfusing acts of Moscow after the Croatian invasion of Krajina in early August.
Pretending peace, the Yeltsin government announced that the answer to the bitter four-year-old war was to hold an "international conference" -- in Moscow.
The Soviets, er, I mean the Russians, would of course plan it and oversee it. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman would be the first to travel to Moscow (historically both the center of world communism and the famous "third Rome" of Christianity, remember) to agree to the peace treaty the Russians had so assiduously prepared for them.
Only then would beleaguered Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic come into the picture -- and then only to be allowed graciously to place his signature of mute acquiescence upon the agreement. And only then would the supposed official negotiators of the whole Balkan mess, the admittedly laughable "contact group" of U.N. diplomats come into the drama.
Before that noble scenario could be played out, however, on Aug. 10 President Boris Yeltsin held his first meeting with Milosevic, the dour, heavy-eyebrowed man who plotted and orchestrated the Serbian war that has resulted in the massacres of more than 200,000 people.
The two apparently hit it off like two long-lost North and South Slav brothers. Terming the meeting "historic" (that part surely was true), Yeltsin said of the cunning and duplicitous Serb leader, "We met for the first time but understood each other at once."
He told Milosevic that "the war on Yugoslavia's territory is not your fault," called for a lifting of U.N. sanctions against Serbia and refuted the international tribunal's charges of war crimes against Serb leaders.
What is one to make of all of this? While there is considerable sympathy for the Serbs, real Russians were more worried when statistics released that same week showed that so many more of them had slipped below the poverty line that Russia now ranked 55th in terms of standard of living among the roughly 180 countries of the world.
When we leave that unfortunate world and move to the corridors of the Kremlin -- to the "new" foreign policy of Russia -- we find it remarkably simple. "New" Russia is acting exactly like the "Old" Soviet Union. If you didn't get the message, repeat after me, "Moscow is the center of the world, Moscow is the center of the world . . ."
And this revival of old Soviet policies -- down to words, gestures and (worst of all) intent -- is not restricted only to the Russian authorities. During those same days, the Russian Duma, or parliament, voted to impose economic sanctions on Croatia because of its "open genocide against Serbs."
In case anyone out there in the world thought the Russians were giving in to democratic diversity, the vote was an extraordinary 234 to 0!
And when Croatian President Tudjman refused to enmesh himself in Moscow's Byzantine web, Russian officials were quick to blame his actions darkly on "strong pressures" from the United States, Germany and Turkey.
It's all too reminiscent of a Soviet newsreel from 1928, or 1933, or 1955 or '67 or '78. The same self-centered arrogance. The same refusal to consider any other nation's or people's needs or realities. The same rewriting of history, even before the blood is dry. Perhaps most frightening of all, the same Orwellian language.
Although these acts seem transparent to those of us with historically suspicious minds, the Russians' intentions in Serbia are actually rather complex.
First of all, Serbia was never the Russians' great link and love in the Balkans: Bulgaria was. Under the decades of harsh but successful and independent rule of Marshall Tito until his death in 1980, Serbia, like all Yugoslavia, was completely cut off from Moscow.
Indeed, one can really look at Moscow's present wooing of Serbia as a distinct and deliberate post-Cold War extension of her power toward Europe, it is that new!
In one of the few articles analyzing Russian intentions in Serbia, the prestigious Financial Times of London recently wrote that "for Moscow's diplomats, ties with Serbia have played a key role in guaranteeing Russia's place in the European security order, and also in putting the brakes on NATO's plans to bring as much as possible of Central and Eastern Europe under a Western defense umbrella.
"For the past two years every international effort to defuse the Bosnian crisis has been predicated in part on Russia using its influence with the Serbs. Moscow, in turn, has used its role in former Yugoslavia to make the wider point that no important security question in Europe should be settled without Russia's assent."
I could not have said it better.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.