After defeating his parliamentary rivals by force, Yeltsin received another stunning blow when the ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's inaptly named Liberal Democrats received one-fifth of the vote in new elections. Although Zhirinovsky's clownish antics have thankfully cost him most of his support, the vocal and increasingly assertive nationalist constituency remains important. With his own percentage of public support in the low single digits, Yeltsin cannot lightly afford to be outflanked on the right by people claiming that he has sold out Russian national interests.
This background of escalating nationalism may help to explain Russia's new tone on Bosnia; but it remains an open question whether the Russian people truly care about the plight of their "brother" Orthodox Slavs. To be sure, one sees graffiti on the Moscow metro supporting the Serbs, and some Russians have volunteered money and even service for the Bosnian Serb forces; it is also likely that the recent grenade attack on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was related to the Balkan imbroglio. Most Russians have too many economic problems of their own, however, to be outraged over Balkan politics.
This indifference may well vanish as the Russian government convincingly charges the Clinton Administration with hypocrisy and double standards. Why, Moscow asks, does the Western press loudly denounce Serbian ethnic cleansing only to remain largely silent about the substantial U.S. military support and training that enabled the Croatian army recently to expel tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs from the Krajina, where they have lived for centuries? Moscow also points out that as NATO bombs rain down on Bosnian Serbs, a Croat-Bosnian Muslim alliance is busy seizing land beyond the view of television cameras.
Resentment of Western wealth and power has deep roots in Russian history, and this may well be exploited by nationalist politicians should NATO planes continue to bomb Serb targets without producing a clear, equitable peace settlement. The Clinton Administration has, so far, failed to articulate a convincing case for continuing the bombardment now that the warring parties have agreed to peace talks and the Bosnia Serbs have promised to withdraw their heavy artillery around Sarajevo. The Russians accuse Washington of choosing sides in the conflict and pummeling their client Serbia. Clinton has sent a special envoy to Russia to explain Washington's policy and to assure Moscow that its interests are not being ignored. Should he fail, the dynamics of Russian politics will ensure that the most serious casualty of Clinton's confusing and shifting Bosnian policies will be good Russian-U.S. relations.*