Archive for Tuesday, May 18, 1999

RUSSIA AT CENTER OF BALKAN DEBATE

May 18, 1999

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— Russia is building a role for itself on the rubble of the Balkans. Three months ago Russia was an afterthought in world affairs -- a big one, to be sure, but an afterthought nonetheless. In the big issues of trade and finance, in the critical areas of diplomacy and strategy, in the emerging fields of high technology and telecommunications, Russia, though in the center of things geographically, was somewhere on the far fringes.

But now, as the last Balkan war of the 20th century approaches its 50th day, the central player is the same nation it always is in Balkan wars. Not Serbia, the white tornado of "ethnic cleansing." Not Kosovo, the sad land still drenched in the blood of a 14th-century conflict that Europe can neither quite remember nor quite forget. Not Macedonia, historic crossroads of ancient civilizations. Not even China, aggrieved victim of high-tech bombers handed the wrong map.

No, the central figure is old Russia, friend of the Slav. Whether under czar or commissar, Russia's eyes have looked west to its European cousins, but its heart has always been in the south, where its Slav brethren dwell. Few wars in the Balkans have started or ended without some Russian involvement. This one will be no different.

While the Americans bomb and the Chinese protest, the Russians, in a fog of rhetoric about the "Slav brotherhood," are feverishly working for peace. They want to end the bloodshed and destruction being suffered by their Belgrade brothers, of course. But the main point is that Russia -- bedraggled and burdened no less at the end of the century than it was at the beginning -- is once again a diplomatic giant.

By working to broker a Balkans agreement, Russia has driven the dreary news about western loans and financial restructuring to the back pages. By diving into the center of the war, it has buttressed its image as an apostle of peace. To the combatants, wars are hellish things. To the observers, they are heaven-sent opportunities.

This is one of the great opportunities of the post-Soviet era. The world's attention has moved to Russia's corner of the globe. The Russians have the high ground. NATO is enfeebled and embarrassed. Hardly anybody outside of Moscow is paying attention to the fact that the Duma might impeach President Boris Yeltsin tomorrow and that Yeltsin might fire Yevgeny Primakov, the prime minister.

And more: The impeached president, Bill Clinton, has pronounced it a "good thing for the Russians to be aggressively involved in finding a diplomatic solution" to the mess in the Balkans. For the first time since the days of Leonid Brezhnev, China and Russia are lining up together against the United States.

In world poker, Russia just drew an inside straight. Once Russia put its cards on the table, the major NATO nations rushed to embrace Moscow's call for an end to violence and repression in Kosovo, the withdrawal of Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces, and the deployment of an international force to keep the peace.

And so in the past week, the focus of diplomacy in the region has changed. Now all the principals are struggling -- check your local paper and you will see the language -- "to bring the Russians closer to their position." Great maxim of geopolitics: Whether on the right or the left, you always want to be the center of attention.

The iron idea of the Balkans is irony, the great interest of Russia is self-interest. Both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great looked to the Balkans as an avenue for access to the Mediterranean. Twice in the last century, during the Crimean War and the War of 1877-1878, the Russians were involved in the warmaking -- and the peacemaking. At the beginning of this century, they were ardent supporters of Serb nationalism and came to the defense of Serbia, helping to precipitate World War I after Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a member of a secret Serbian nationalist movement.

The Balkans are a yeasty region, a boiling cauldron, and not -- most definitely not -- a melting pot. Maybe a petri dish, though, where race, religion and big-power strategy produce frightful concoctions -- and frightening calculations. By fomenting Slav nationalism and Slav brotherhood, the Russians for centuries have built links in strategically valuable areas. The Balkans are a battlefield in wars military and diplomatic, the perfect place for Russia to weaken its opponents, be they the old Ottomans or the members of the NATO alliance.

The big-power strategies are clear. The NATO allies can't lose this battle, or else no one would take the alliance seriously. The Russians can't let their allies be humiliated, or else no one would take them seriously. In the Balkans, in this war, in this difficult moment in world history, nobody is pure of heart or pure of motive. A Moscow moment if there ever was one.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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