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Is Russia the Right Nation to Be Carrying the Serbs' Ball?

May 09, 1999|Steven Merritt Miner

ATHENS, OHIO — From the outset of the war in Kosovo, the Russian government objected in the strongest possible terms to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of Yugoslavia. At first, many Western leaders and analysts believed that the Russian objections could be ignored with impunity, because the evils of the Serbian-led slaughter and expulsion of ethnic Albanian Kosovars seemed so manifest, and Russian isolation and weakness so evident.

But when NATO's air campaign failed to produce quick results, two things became clearer: The Russian government and people have a radically different view of the Kosovo war than do most Westerners; and that if the war is to end with a negotiated solution, rather than a NATO military victory, Russia's position as the only major European nation supporting Yugoslavia is central to crafting any end to the fighting. It is thus important to understand the reasons for Russia's stance on Serbia. History, current political considerations and even the structure of the Russian Federation all pushed the Kremlin toward supporting Belgrade.

The Balkans have always been crucial to Russia. Historically, economic considerations have been less important than religious, cultural and military-strategic ones. The Russian people received their brand of Eastern Orthodox Christianity a millennium ago via Balkan Slavic missionaries, and though the religious tie is no longer as strong as it once was, it exerts a steady gravitational pull. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II visited Belgrade last month to pray with packed crowds in that city's cathedral and to underline his church's support for fellow Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is the author of "Selling Stalin," about Soviet propaganda.

Slavic Orthodox Christians. Back home, Russian believers have raised money, and even volunteers, to assist the Yugoslav war effort.

Strategically, the Russians have long regarded the Balkans as vital, particularly Serbia, the first Orthodox, Slavic nation to regain its independence from the Ottoman Turks. Russian czars consistently sought to prevent any outside great power from dominating the peninsula. They are no less eager today to prevent a U.S.-led alliance from doing so. During the 19th century, Russia's leaders, notably the Pan-Slavs, saw themselves as "elder brothers" of the smaller Balkan Slavic peoples. From 1828 to 1914, they fought four major wars--and suffered disastrous defeats in the Crimean War and World War I--to contest control of the region. Although Russia fought these wars to advance its own strategic interests, a seductive mythology exists among Russian nationalists to the effect that their countrymen have always shed their blood to defend their weaker Slavic brethren.

That these historical and emotional ties remain strong is starkly demonstrated in a recent survey of Russian public opinion, published in the Economist magazine. Most of the world watches the murder and expulsion of ethnic Albanians with horror and lays the blame squarely on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his regime. Russians, by contrast, blame the Albanians for the current conflict in Kosovo; only 2% believe the Serbs are responsible. Even more startling, 87% favor sending Russian antiaircraft missiles to Serbia, in violation of their own government's pledges to the contrary and in the face of a NATO embargo; 71% support a political union among Russia, Belarus and Serbia, for which arrangement the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, recently voted; and 42% actually claim that they are willing to volunteer to fight on the Serbs' behalf. Even if these figures contain a large dose of armchair bravado, they nonetheless reflect a sharply different view of the war as seen from the East.

Not all the reasons for Russia's support of Serbia lie in the past or in some mystical-historic bond linking the Slavic peoples. The NATO assault on Serbia raises a number of troubling precedents for Russia's current or future rulers, of whatever stripe. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the secession of the principal non-Russian republics from the union, the Russian Federation remains a patchwork quilt of minor nationalities. Boris N. Yeltsin's government prosecuted a bloody war against Chechen secessionists with a level of ferocity not yet approached in Kosovo, with deaths estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000.

The Western press never took up the cause of the Chechens, and the NATO powers stood quietly by as the slaughter continued for months, afraid of throttling Russia's fledgling democracy by defending the rebels.

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