Russia's moves on Kosovo are political folly

June 17, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The Russians' seizure of the Pristina airport was audacious but foolish. It was good for the battered morale of the Russian army, but bad for the country's political and economic position in the world.

Moscow had already been courted by Washington and the European governments to help negotiate Yugoslavia's surrender, and to draft the U.N. Security Council resolution giving legal foundation to the international protectorate Kosovo now becomes. And Russia played an important and recognized role in ending the war, and was assured a place in what was to follow.

Now Moscow has seriously annoyed all the Western powers and has little to show for it. Seizing the airport was good fun. Camping there is likely to become irksome. If NATO wishes to be difficult, 200 Russian paratroopers could soon go hungry.

If talks to settle the matter break down, the Russians will find that holding the airport does not mean that they can use it. There already are reports that Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary have refused Russian requests to clear overflights of reinforcements for Pristina. NATO forces could, if they were told to do so, prevent planes from landing there or make the runways unusable. The affair has given Moscow a bargaining edge in the short run but has damaged its longer-term position.

Seeking respect

NATO is not going to allow the Serbian-Kosovo border region to be placed under independent Russian control, as the Serbs would like and which would imply Kosovo's permanent partition. The Russians need good relations with the West; they need the further financial support they are supposed to be given at the G-7 meeting this week. They want respect, which the Western powers have offered, if not always tactfully.

Indeed, the United States has invited something like this ever since the Clinton administration decided to expand NATO, in disregard of the Bush administration's explicit assurance at the time of Germany's unification that this would not take place. When a government treats its promises as worthless, it can expect retaliation sooner or later.

A further example of the Clinton administration's foreign policy frivolity is that the airport episode need never have happened. General Michael Jackson, with his force of British paratroopers, would have been at the Pristina airport long before the Russians, had the White House not imposed a 24-hour delay of the operation so that European forces would not enter Kosovo before the U.S. Marines, and steal the televised glory.

In Moscow, where political confusion now reigns (and is likely to last well beyond this year's parliamentary elections, until Boris Yeltsin finally makes way for a new president), NATO's war against Yugoslavia rekindled old pan-Slav sentiments, the illusory and distracting notion that the Slav peoples share a special destiny and must unite against non-Slavs.

This lies behind the widely voiced sentiment that Russia should support Serbia. Russian media coverage of the war frequently left out what the Serbs had done to the Kosovars to cause the international intervention.

The pan-Slav idea had a damaging influence on Russia in the 19th century because it opposed close relations with Western Europe.

It was, paradoxically enough, a product of German romanticism, convincing some Russian intellectuals that it was better to be poor and backward, but close to nature, than to be rich and civilized like the French and English, whose advanced development allegedly proved only that they were on the brink of decadence.

Slav power

Serbia is also a victim of such ideas, causing Serbs to think they are inherently superior to their neighbors and therefore justified in treating them the way they have treated the Kosovars. When others strike back, Serbs angrily complain they are the innocent victims of conspiracies by enemies of the Slavs.

Pan-Slav unity mostly is historical myth. Serbia and Bulgaria have mainly been rivals. Russia helped Serbia get its independence in the 1870s, but in this century, the pre-1941 Serb monarchy was closer to France and was an enemy of Bolshevik Russia. Tito broke with Stalin in 1948 precisely because Russia threatened Yugoslavia's independence.

Why should Russia hurt its own interests today by protecting the corrupt and brutal Milosevic regime? Russian support for Serbia indulges the paranoid political culture in Serbia, which has done so much harm not only to Serbia's neighbors, but also to Serbia itself.

Ideal game plan

The country has no serious future, other than to reopen relations with Western civilization, install democracy and give up its linked fantasies of national superiority and national persecution. It has to come to terms with the reality that Serbia intolerably repressed the Kosovars, inviting their rebellion, committed war crimes and has been defeated. The game Russia is playing in Kosovo comforts the Serbian denial that any of this happened.

The West is ready for reconciliation with the Serbs. It wants solid relations of mutual respect with Russia. It is up to the Serbs and Russians to choose.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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