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Mercenaries Whose Prime Motivation Is Ideology : Bosnia: The conflict has been turned into the ideologically correct--from the nationalist view--Orthodox Slav vs. Muslim "Turk."

September 12, 1993|Alex Alexiev | Alex Alexiev, a foreign-affairs analyst, writes frequently on Russian and Eastern European affairs. He just returned from a two-week visit to Russia

SCOTTS VALLEY, CALIF. — At a recent demonstration in Cairo, several thousand young Muslims, whipped into frenzy by Islamic zealots, shouted their determination to join the holy war against the West ern enemies of Islam in Bosnia. Thousands of miles to the north, at solidarity rallies in St. Petersburg, men wearing combat fatigues signed up volunteers to fight on the side of their Serb brothers against the age-old enemies of Orthodoxy--Islam and the West.

These seemingly unrelated events are part of a disturbing, if little noticed, aspect of the genocidal strife in Bosnia--its gradual transformation into a larger, international religious and ethnic conflict. A conflict that is increasingly being exploited by anti-Western ideologues--from Russian neo-facists to Islamic militants--to promote their reactionary ends. This development will take a progressively heavier toll on the prospects for stability in the Balkans and beyond.

The practical expression of this internationalization is the growing presence of mercenaries on Bosnia's battlefields. These "volunteers," as they prefer to call themselves, differ from the traditional gun-for-hire, soldier-of-fortune type in that most of them join one or the other side on the basis of ethnic and religious affinities. Although reliable information is understandably difficult to obtain, there is little doubt that hundreds of mercenaries are presently fighting in Bosnia and many have lost their lives there.

Russian "volunteers" began joining Serbian units soon after the beginning of the war in Bosnia, which transformed the Yugoslav imbroglio into the ideologically correct--from the nationalist point of view--Orthodox Slav vs. Muslim "Turk" dichotomy. By late 1992, according to interviews and the occasional Russian press report, groups of up to 25 trained volunteers began leaving for Serbia on a regular basis. Since then, the press has reported the existence of joint Russian-Serb units and instances of Russian officers distinguishing themselves in combat. A recent story details the valiant deeds of a Russian army captain and his associates who died in action. Another story mentions the existence of a "Russian military detachment" within the Serbian forces.

More important than the mercenaries themselves, who are not likely to have a real impact on the outcome of the war, are the political forces that sponsor them. These include many of the nationalist, anti-Western and anti-democratic groups that have sprung up in post-Soviet Russia, such as the Russian Party, the National Republican Party and the Russian National Legion. The Russian Party regularly organizes recruitment rallies and has set up three training camps in St. Petersberg for the mercenaries.

While these groupings remain mostly on the political fringes, they enjoy the implicit support of the most powerful anti-democratic forces in the nation, which have all but declared all-out war on President Boris N. Yeltsin and Russian democracy. Yeltsin's chief antagonist and chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, has accused the president of selling out the Serbs in an alleged secret deal with President Bill Clinton. These Yelstin foes have powerful allies in the media, and, as a result, the average Russian remains rather uninformed about Yugoslav realities. Two weeks ago, for example, Russian state television showed, during prime-time, a "documentary" that portrayed the Serbs as innocent victims of Western aggression and genocide. It ended with an impassioned plea by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church to "Mother Russia" to come and save them.

Similar and, if anything, more dangerous efforts to exploit the war for unsavory political agendas and flagrant disinformation also mark the involvement of Islamic fundamentalists on the side of Bosnia's Muslims. As with the Russians, there are now hundreds of Islamic "soldiers of the faith" in the country. And much like the Russians, virtually all of them are veterans of the Afghan war, though few are Afghans themselves.

As in Afghanistan, where they were often subjected to derision by the hardened Afghan moujahedeen , their military prowess probably leaves a lot to be desired. What they may lack in skills, however, they appear to make up in fanaticism and cruelty. Evidence from several sources has come to light, for example, that much of the brutality and mistreatment of civilians during last May's Muslim offensive against the Croats in Herzegovina was spearheaded by the fundamentalist mercenaries. Undoubtedly, they have also contributed to the growing radicalization of the generally secular Bosnians.

Their military role may be negligible, but the political implications of Islamic zealots posturing as Bosnia's only friends, and undoubtedly convincing some, are hardly reassuring. For there is little doubt that Western cowardice in the face of genocide against Bosnia's Muslims has been a shot in the arm for a resurgent Islamic fundamentalism.

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