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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | NEWS ANALYSIS

Sullen Russia Feels Snubbed by West

Diplomacy: Indictment of Milosevic seen as an affront to Moscow's efforts to broker a solution.

May 30, 1999|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — If Washington wanted to restart the Cold War, it might consider the following strategy:

First, provoke a conflict within Russia's sphere of influence that would show the former superpower to be militarily and politically impotent. Second, placate the Russians' sense of injury by suggesting they make themselves useful through diplomacy. Third, pull the carpet out from under that diplomacy.

The result: a Russia isolated, powerless and angry.

As far as the Russians are concerned, this is precisely what has happened to them over the last few weeks amid the crisis in Kosovo.

"The West has deceived Russia and buried Balkan diplomacy," read a banner headline Friday in the generally pro-Western newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The West has successfully reduced Russia's peacemaking to naught," the article said. "The Kremlin now has every reason to remove itself as a mediator."

The latest blow to Russia's prestige came Thursday with the U.N. war crimes indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Russia's lead negotiator on Kosovo, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who is considered a moderate in both Moscow and Washington, accused the West of deliberate sabotage.

"It seems as if someone needed to complicate the peace dialogue," he groused. "It reminds you of a political charade."

If NATO is convinced of its honorable intentions and humanitarian aims in Kosovo, most Russians are just as convinced of the opposite: that NATO is an aggressor actively seeking to expand its own sphere of influence.

The difference is not a result of state-controlled media coverage or propaganda. Russian officials and news reporters have access to a wide variety of information from all over the world.

Instead, the divide results from much deeper differences of perception. And if the West thinks it is making efforts to find common ground and common principles with the Russians, these efforts are making little headway.

In the diplomatic arena, Russian officials have frequently expressed frustration with NATO's unwillingness to compromise. While the alliance may think it is demonstrating resoluteness, to Russians this comes out as arrogance.

And there is no doubt that the West is not listening very carefully to the Russians. For the last few weeks, Russian officials have said repeatedly that they would consider withdrawing from the peace effort unless NATO became more amenable. But officials in Washington reacted with surprise when Chernomyrdin made the same statement last week in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

With Russians already feeling as if they have been shouting into the wind, it seems perfectly obvious to most people here that the Milosevic indictment was timed to undermine their diplomatic work.

"It cannot be coincidental that this step was taken precisely at the moment when Kosovo negotiations reached the most critical stage," the Foreign Ministry said. "As a result, the negotiations have become significantly more complicated."

For Russians, the overriding concern about the crisis in Yugoslavia is NATO's decision to attack a sovereign country.

"In the West, the Kosovo story is about ethnic cleansing and refugees and a Serb dictator," said Masha Lipman, deputy editor of the respected weekly Itogi. "Here, the Kosovo story is NATO airstrikes and their destruction."

No matter what Milosevic may or may not have done, Russians say, NATO was wrong to attack another country. It's a view expressed nearly universally, from the park bench to the Kremlin.

"Maybe Milosevic deserves to be indicted," said Andrei Merzlikin, a 30-year-old Muscovite taking a break Friday in a Moscow park. "But there's no need to bomb, no matter what."

Moreover, there is no doubt in the Russian mind that NATO is not setting things right in Kosovo but merely compounding the wrongs.

"I don't know the truth about what Milosevic has been doing. But why hasn't NATO been indicted? Both sides are at fault, but NATO is worse," said 42-year-old Tatyana Kostareva.

There are several reasons for this conceptual divide. One is that Russians are generally unfamiliar with charges of war crimes committed by Serbs earlier this decade in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia played a relatively small role in that conflict and was preoccupied for much of the time by its own horrific war in Chechnya.

Moreover, Russia's own geopolitical weakness makes it hypersensitive to the slightest indication of Western superiority. And the West, accustomed to its power, seems oblivious to the slights it can make to the rest of the world.

"No one takes Russia into account anymore," sputtered Ilya Konovalo, a 44-year-old cabdriver. "We can protest all we want, but we're on the same level as untamed Africa."

To most Russians, it seems perfectly obvious that NATO seriously misunderstood the historical and cultural milieu of the Balkans and that these misperceptions led to serious miscalculations.

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