Aid recipient Russia sends supply convoy to friend, Yugoslavia

Criticism of U.S., a donor to Moscow, is left unsaid during send-off

April 10, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In a solemn ceremony that bore the air of a religious crusade, Russia sent off its first shipment of humanitarian aid to Yugoslavia this week, with officials preaching that even a poverty-stricken, aid-receiving nation could give unto others.

"Isn't there some discrepancy here?" a Russian reporter asked Sergei K. Shoigu, the head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. "We were receiving aid, and now we are rendering aid ourselves."

Of course, Shoigu assured reporters meeting with him at a news conference, there was no conflict whatsoever.

"You see," he said, "there are some things that Russia needs and there are other areas in which Russia can help others. And these two things should not be confused."

Shoigu tactfully avoided mentioning the words "United States," which is among the countries bombing Yugoslavia to weaken it and force it to come to terms over the fate of Kosovo.

The United States -- began delivering nearly $1 billion of aid to Russia last month in an attempt to avoid hunger here next winter.

And Germany, a NATO ally in the bombing, has just sent Russia a trainload of beef, part of a $500 million aid package from the European Union.

"Even in the hardest times for Russia we helped other states in spite of our own internal difficulties," Shoigu said. "And speaking about the concrete situation, we are sending the cargoes that we can afford to send."

That includes Russian-made medical supplies, baby food, sugar, salt, vegetable oil, tents and a mobile hospital.

The $1 million in aid was provided by the government, which is regularly behind in paying its elderly people their pensions, which had averaged about $83 a month, but have shrunk to about $20 as the ruble has fallen and economic prospects have grown ever bleaker since August.

Shoigu said the 900 tons of supplies, which are expected to arrive in Belgrade tomorrow on Orthodox Easter, are destined for anyone who needs them, regardless of nationality or religion.

He said much of the aid would be sent on to Montenegro for refugees there.

Russians, however, expect that the aid will go to their Slavic brothers, as the Serbs are known here, and they don't begrudge it. They feel a special affinity for Serbs, who share the Orthodox Christian tradition.

They have also been given a mostly one-sided view of the conflict in Yugoslavia, as politicians have turned it to their own ends. Communists and nationalists have used the bombing to stir up anti-Western sentiment, comparing President Clinton to Hitler, in an attempt to discredit President Boris N. Yeltsin and his pro-Western policies.

Yeltsin's own anti-NATO rhetoric, harsh at first, had moderated in recent days as calls for military intervention appeared in danger of getting out of hand. But with the State Duma considering impeachment proceedings next week, he dived for political cover yesterday, sounding more strident.

"I told NATO, the Americans, the Germans, don't push us toward military action," he said. "Otherwise there will be a European war for sure and possibly world war."

Even moderates are furious at the West, however, saying the NATO action has been directed by the United States, which is intent on running the world and doesn't care whom it bombs or humiliates -- including Russia.

If it can no longer influence world events, Russia can feel a small pride in helping an old friend.

"As for humanitarian aid for Yugoslavia, I'm in favor of it," said Valery Dvoretsky, head of the town administration in Mys Shmidta, a desolate outpost above the Arctic Circle. "If people there need it, they should get it."

Mys Shmidta, where daytime temperatures average 35 below zero for months, was within days of running out of fuel this winter. It has been snowed in for weeks at a time, and people have lived on little more than bread and porridge.

"We do not get humanitarian aid here," Dvoretsky said by telephone. "But we are trying to crawl out of our difficulties."

Albion Brichalov, a parliamentary expert on the north, said despite predictions to the contrary, the people of the Arctic regions have survived the winter -- on dried bread, flour and some canned food.

"They have minimum supplies, just enough to survive," Brichalov said. "And anyway, it's impossible to deliver aid there, it's so isolated."

Attempts to telephone the Yakutia gold-mining town of Nezhdaninskoye, where pet dogs were vanishing in November as winter set in and people grew hungrier and hungrier, brought information that lines had been disconnected six months ago. A regional official about 200 miles away said 240 people were still there, heating themselves with the stoves in their apartments.

Small Russian flags fluttered defiantly on the half-dozen bulky white Kamaz trucks that drove into the courtyard of the much-revered Danilovsky monastery this week for a blessing before the convoy left.

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