Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russia's Balkan Strategy

Russia is better placed than most to help resolve the post-election crisis in Serbia, but has so far showed no inclination to do so.

Confusion reigned, both in Belgrade and the international community, when Russian President Vladimir Putin wavered over recognising the clear victory of opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica.

His proposal that both Milosevic and Kostunica attend consultations in Moscow before then going ahead with a second round of voting shook the opposition. Having won the first round so convincingly, Kostunica cannot consent to a run-off. On the other hand, spurning an invitation from "Mother Russia" cannot be easy.

There are obvious similarities between Vladimir Putin and Milosevic. Both have usurped the institutions of state in order to secure huge power for themselves. Putin is a "democratic" dictator, who tolerates a multi-party system, while ruling with an iron fist. Milosevic fits neatly into that model, but if Putin concludes that abandoning his Serb counterpart could be beneficial, he will surely do so. Therein lies a challenge for the West.

Few doubt that the Russian political elite will accept the eventual victor, as Russia has a long tradition of co-operating with whatever regime happens to be in place. But only pragmatic interest - in the form of financial blackmail by the West - will galvanise the Russians into taking some responsibility for ensuring who the eventual victor might be this time.

Past experience shows that Moscow's own interests always outweigh romantic notions of "Orthodox brotherhood" and Russia has only ever supported Serbia in the past to secure or further her own interests.

After a decade long identity crisis in the post-Cold War world, Russia is now trying to secure her place among the great powers in the face of NATO's expansion eastward. The security of her borders and an assurance that the West will not try to infiltrate Moscow's sphere of influence - most notably, those former Soviet states which are now independent, but closely allied to Russia - are of paramount importance.

Moreover, Moscow is still waiting for $22.5 billion from the IMF and the World Bank. Four years after the money was pledged, only $2.7 billion has been forthcoming. Russia cannot afford to wait much longer and the West may well use this money as leverage.

Russia built up her influence over Serbia and Montenegro by spreading the ideas of Pan-Slavism and Orthodox brotherhood. Since the end of the Cold War her own interests in the Balkans have evolved.

Previously, the Balkans were considered a buffer zone with the West, an additional security for Russia's borders. More recently, the Black Sea and Caspian oil line, plus need for a link with the Mediterranean have directed Russia's interest in the Balkans. Believing that Russian support strengthened their hand internally, various Serbian regimes have colluded in the myth of "Slav brothers," always ready to leap to each other's defence.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow assessed that support for the project of "Greater Serbia" would secure her influence and presence in the Balkans. During the entire Yugoslav crisis, Russia functioned as a life support machine for the Serbian regime.

More importantly, the Yugoslav crisis also helped Russia regain a place on a post-Cold War international stage with an ad-hoc approach to regional conflicts. Sympathy with Milosevic has always been subordinated to Russia's broader interest of maintaining good relations with the West.

Serbs were shocked when Moscow recognised the independence of Slovenia and Croatia in February 1992, followed by Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer of that year.

However, those who blamed this move on the "negative influence" of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, were failing to recognise a new direction in Russian international strategy.

Russia was becoming ever more distant from the Balkans and ever closer to the political, economic and even military institutions of western Europe. Moscow's role in negotiating and implementing the Dayton Accords, and her membership of the Contact Group set up to try and calm the mounting Kosovo crisis, showed where she understood her interests to lie.

At the same time, mindful of her own traditional nationalist socialist current of opinion, Russia also encouraged militant forces in Serbia, maintaining their illusion of an ally in the East. Torn between the traditionalists and her real interest in cultivating the West, Russian foreign policy became an exercise in saying one thing and doing quite another.

For example, on the UN Security Council Moscow argued against the imposition of sanctions on Yugoslavia, but then voted for them. Similarly, Slobodan Milosevic was astonished when Russia accepted the Helsinki peace agreement for Kosovo, which provided for the entry of international forces to the province.

Even during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, which Moscow did nothing to prevent, circles within the Duma circulated the idea of a Russian-Belo Russian alliance with Yugoslavia. Neither side really took this idea seriously, but it was used to bolster Serbian nationalist consciousness, thereby shoring up support for Milosevic. Games like these leave Moscow with a moral obligation to settle her accounts with Serbia.

At present, Russia is withholding support from the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, as she tries to assess how her influence in the region will be best secured. Milosevic has always provided a guarantee for Russian interests, now Moscow awaits a signal from the opposition that her interests will be safe with them, too.

For its own part, the Serbian opposition has delayed sending any such message to Moscow, as a way of registering its disappointment at Russia's de facto support for Milosevic. The ball is now in Moscow's court; if she waits too long to support a new president for Yugoslavia, myths of "Slav brotherhood" could be buried forever - and that really would diminish Russian influence in the Balkans.

Jelica Kurjak is an expert in international relations at the Institute for International Poltiics and Economy in Belgrade.

More IWPR's Global Voices