Moscow President Vladimir Putin offered Saturday to send his foreign minister to Belgrade to help resolve the disputed Yugoslav presidential election.
President Slobodan Milosevic's government had no immediate response to the Russian offer, but opposition sources said the president had rejected it, news services reported from Belgrade. In a rare public appearance Saturday, Milosevic sounded a generally defiant theme in a speech condemning outside pressure on Yugoslavia.
"We will counter pressures and threats with the truth, unity, knowledge, work and creativity," he told graduates of the Yugoslav military academy in Belgrade, "just as we did successfully during the aggression (the NATO bombing of Yugo-slavia last year) and in the subsequent reconstruction of our country."
Putin said his offer is contingent on Belgrade's agreement, and that Russia would not interfere in the dispute, which he suggested should be resolved by Yugoslavia's Federal Election Commission or a court.
The Yugoslav political opposition contends that its main candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, won last Sunday's election with 51.34 percent of the vote, compared to 36.22 percent for Milosevic. The election commission says Kostunica's vote total fell just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff election, set by the government for next Sunday.
Meanwhile, sporadic strikes and rallies organized by the opposition continued Saturday across Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. Opposition leaders say they hope to shut down the country on Monday unless Milosevic accepts defeat.
Putin's comments, reflecting a more low-key approach by Russia than last year's sharp criticism of the NATO offensive, were made in a rare meeting with journalists at the Kremlin. Russia, which traditionally has had strong ties to Serbia, seems eager to find a diplomatic role in the crisis.
"If Belgrade finds it possible, Russia would be prepared to play a higher profile in the process of settlement and coordination of positions," Putin said.
"The balance of forces is clear enough already," he added. "We see what's happening there and how much of the population voted for each candidate. All disputes must be settled exclusively within the law which is currently in force in that country. There is a danger if an alternative way is used that the legitimacy of the future leadership of the country may be questioned. This will prolong the destabilization in the state."
Russia has taken a notably subdued approach in recent days to the electoral woes of Milosevic. None of the official statements this week offered him any support a sharp contrast with last year when Russian political leaders staunchly defended Milosevic during the NATO air offensive. At the time, Russia abruptly interrupted a host of arms control and nonproliferation negotiations with the United States, and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air on the way to Washington.