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KOSOVO: THE RUSSIAN OUTLOOK

By Andrew Jack


MOSCOW, 19 May 1999 It may seem peaceful and far removed from the burnt out buildings of Belgrade, but in many ways the most explosive aspect of the Kosovo conflict is taking place on the streets of Moscow.

You get little idea of the underlying tension by walking round the Russian capital. Even the American embassy the most obvious objective for aggression bears few scars apart from the odd histrionically smashed window and a few splotches from ink bottles thrown at its yellow walls.

There are a few dozen protestors on the far side of the street, kept away from their target by a tight cordon of security after a lunatic tried to launch a grenade at the embassy in a move which largely risked harming fellow demonstrators. Meanwhile, a significant number of Russians continues to queue for U.S. visas.

But there is an underlying sentiment of anger and frustration which may translate into a form of new Cold Peace that lingers long after the Yugoslavia crisis comes to an end. And for the first time, it is not just touching the minority of ageing Communist romantics who have lost so much in the reforms of the past few years. It is also beginning to radicalise the younger generation who came of age in the post-Soviet period with no illusions about or desires to return to the past.

There is plenty that is disingenuous in the Russian hostility to the war but plenty that rings at least partially true as well. There is little doubt that while media censorship no longer exists, most broadcasters and editors have steered a strongly pro-Serb line. They concentrate far more on the effects of NATO's attacks than eyewitness reports of ethnic cleansing from refugees on Kosovo's borders.

But some Russian journalistsnotably on the privately-owned NTV station have shown alternative views. And the lengthy live briefings of official spokesmen broadcast without the slightest editorialising or analysis from NATO headquarters or the Pentagon by CNN and the BBC are hardly any more objective either. Particularly given a number of well-document errors already propagated and eventually retracted by the Western side.

President Yeltsin's bloody bombardments of Chechnya show that while the Russians criticise NATO's strategy today, they were perfectly prepared to use violence themselves in very recent memory. Their battle left huge Russian as well as Chechnian casualties, and the mountainous breakaway republic remains as troublesome and lawless as ever.

But there is also some truth in the fact that the disastrous outcome of the Chechnian conflict has taught Russia a lesson in how not to approach contemporary warfare a lesson which may have some relevance to Serbia. Yeltsin's own popularity ratings plummeted to single digits in the aftermath and have remained there ever since. That, at least, is one warning to the strategists of NATO.

The Soviet system's disregard for human rights and the often maverick and partisan performance of the contemporary court system sits awkwardly with Russian indignation over the West's cavalier approach to international law in attacking a sovereign state.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that the West did ride roughshod over the normal diplomatic routesnotably the United Nations in the face of clear signs that it would not get its own way in the Security Council with vetoes threatened from both China and Russia.

There is certainly little historical justification behind the idea of pan-slavic brotherhood and solidarity as trumpeted by some Russian commentators. Born out of nineteenth-century intellectual romanticism, the Serbs and Russians had occasional pragmatic alliances, matched by far longer periods of disregard or hostility. Stalin began plotting the assassination of Tito just after the second world war, and relations have long been difficult between the two nations.

Support in Russia for Kosovo's Muslims as well as Orthodox Serbs.

Andwith 15 million or more Muslims in Russia today, any suggestion that Russians are united with the Serbs by the Orthodox church rings hollow. The semi-autonomous republic of Tatarstan is among those which has warned against any unequivocal support for the Christian Serbs, and acted as a reminder that there is also Russian support for Kosovo's persecuted Muslims.

But there is a sense that if NATO can launch military actions in an attempt to stop activities within a third-party country which do not directly affect or threaten any of its own member states, then what is to stop the institution in the future taking similar action against Russia? If Russia launched another Chechnian war, for example, would Moscow be threatened by enemy bombs?

More generally, there is a perception that while Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled the old Eastern Bloc military complex, the West has not met its side of the bargain by reciprocating. It has instead maintained and reinforced NATO by adding Russia's former captive states in Eastern Europe into its fold and edging towards its own borders.

In many ways, the West side-lined Russia in the build-up to the Yugoslav bombardments, playing on the fact that it is of small and decreasing importance on the world stage, with its economy having shrunk to a rump of the power-house boasted of in official Soviet statistics in the past. The West calculated that the very need for financial assistance from international organisations means that Russia dare not stand out too far.

This may have proved an important miscalculation. For even aside from the dreaded "too nuclear to fail" argument, and the economic potential of what remains the world's geographically largest nation, Russia remains of huge geostrategic importance, spanning Europe and Asia. And its diplomatic success in acting as an intermediary and reintroducing itself into the centre of the talks has shown it still has a significant role to play as a necessary counterbalance to the West. President Yeltsin's impulsive sacking of his latest government also shows how unpredictable he is and how willing to risk upsetting conventional order.

Can Russia maintain its moderate line?

In domestic political terms, the now ousted government of Yevgeni Primakov managed the ugly crisis with which they were presented rather successfully. While being forced to contribute to anti-Western and anti-NATO rhetoric to appease more extremist national sentiment, it safeguarded foreign embassies and apparently stood back from any direct contribution to the Serb regime. Even if it is difficult to believe that there was not some quid pro quo for the delivery of the crashed U.S. stealth bomber by Milosevic to Moscow.

The Russian government also demonstrated considerable sleight of hand in distancing itself from the failure of the Rambouilllet talks, at which its diplomats were present alongside those of the West and always with the ultimate threat of military action if Milosevic refused to cooperate.

Even if the new government maintains a moderate stance, the longer the conflict is prolonged, the more difficult it will be to balance inaction against more radicalalbeit minority domestic voices. There are a few outspoken characters such as the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy, who pops up on television dressed in battle fatigues to exploit the situation to the full. He is coordinating a recruitment centre for volunteers to go to Serbia's help, although precisely what help they would prove remains to be seen. Mr. Zhirinovksy has strangely so far resisted flying to Belgrade himself to help out on the frontline, wherever that may be.

While his party and the communistswho hold the balance of power in the Russian parliament may criticise the war, it is providing them with huge popular support. Support that they are likely to be able to capitalise on in the general elections scheduled for December, with a further intensifying of the so-called "red-brown" mix which draws frightening parallels with the Weimar regime of pre-second world war Germany.

They are tapping into a broader sense of frustration with post-Soviet reforms of every sort from price liberalisation and privatisation to democracy. Reforms which have become closely associated for a high proportion of Russians as being Western, and as having collapsed into a morass of economic depression, poverty and corruption. With new World Bank estimates suggesting that up to 20 per cent of the Russian population will be in extreme poverty by next year, it is not surprising that people are angry, frustrated and desperate. All of which provide fertile ground for scape-goats and nationalist sentiment.

So far, Western Europe has been lucky. Anger at the bombardments has been focused essentially on the Americans. Not a bad sleight of hand, given that Europe was just as keen on action in Yugoslavia, but has always failed to get its own common defence force together. It has thus been delighted at the American willingness to intervene, and has seen its wishes implemented without having to take the brunt of consequences in hostility from Russia. Up till now.



Andrew Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com



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