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[ALBSA-Info] ANALYSIS-Russia stakes claim to Balkans influenceGazhebo at aol.com Gazhebo at aol.com
Sun Jun 17 22:08:58 EDT 2001
ANALYSIS-Russia stakes claim to Balkans influence By Philippa Fletcher BELGRADE, June 17 (Reuters) - Russia, once a key player in the Balkans, staked a claim to continuing influence in the region with a visit to fellow-Orthodox Slav Yugoslavia by President Vladimir Putin on Sunday. The two-day trip built on what both countries say is a productive and businesslike relationship established since democrats took over in Belgrade from the authoritarian Slobodan Milosevic. But its primary significance appeared to be symbolic. The two sides discussed Russian energy supplies to Yugoslavia, and Putin and his host, President Vojislav Kostunica, both condemned international policy in Kosovo, urging the world to force ethnic Albanian "terrorists" to lay down their arms. Putin then headed for the majority Albanian province, which he and Kostunica both said was the main source of recent violence that threatens to plunge the hitherto-peaceful former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia into civil war. There he called for a pact to reaffirm current borders in the Balkans, an initiative clearly aimed at undercutting ethnic Albanian separatism in Kosovo and among some of the guerrillas who began operating in Macedonia this year. Predrag Simic, professor of international relations at Belgrade University, said Russia's proposal recalled the past, when Imperial Moscow had a major say in Balkan affairs. "Russia is suggesting it is implemented through the International Contact Group, which reminds me of the 19th century approach of the Great Powers in the Balkans," he said. The contact group is an ad-hoc forum including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States to discuss crises in the Balkans. PROPOSAL CONTROVERSIAL The Russian initiative is likely to win sympathy from the international officials overseeing the five-year-old peace in Bosnia, who are struggling to reintegrate the former Yugoslav republic amid renewed pressure from Serb and Croat nationalists. But it will infuriate Kosovo's Albanians and the leadership of Montenegro, Serbia's smaller partner in Yugoslavia, who want to hold a referendum on splitting from the Serb-dominated state. "No new states in the Balkans" is a regular refrain from Western diplomats, but many say in private they cannot imagine Kosovo ever coming back under Belgrade's control after its repression before and during NATO's air strikes in 1999. They also fear an explicit veto on independence could merely encourage the extremist elements they are trying to contain. Simic acknowledged that when Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic had floated the idea several months ago, the reaction had ranged from "silence to suggestions it may be premature." And he said it was not clear whether Putin, who discussed the region at his first summit with U.S. President George Bush on Saturday, had won support from the man who calls the shots on the world diplomatic stage. "Moscow wanted to show that it wanted to be helpful, to have a role itself but also to support Yugoslavia," he said. "We do believe Russia is a player, it is very difficult to see the Balkan table without Russia," he said, adding its main influence nowadays was economic with Moscow a major energy supplier to and trading partner with the region. "It's not a security role, as in the past, or political, as in the case with Milosevic. It seems Russia is trying to modernise its approach and put it on the economic field," he said. FIRST VISIT BY KREMLIN LEADER It was the first visit by a Kremlin leader to the two-republic Yugoslavia, which, like its bigger Socialist predecessor, has had a fluctuating relationship with Moscow. Veteran communist Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito split with fellow-communists in the Soviet Union in 1948, just a few years after he came to power during World War Two. They mended relations in the 1950s when Kremlin leader Nikita Krushschev came to Belgrade, but Yugoslavia never joined its northern and eastern neighbours, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Milosevic, who tried and failed to take over Tito's mantle by creating a Serb -dominated Yugoslavia as Communism collapsed in the early 1990s, looked to Russia for support. Russian ministers criticised the West over its Balkans policy and mediated in the tortuous peace negotiations over the bloody breakup of the old Socialist federation and in Milosevic's conflict with the West over Kosovo. But Moscow never gave him the military backing he sought, and it was Russia's old Cold War foe the United States that took the lead in hammering out the peace deals. Washington is now pressing for Milosevic's handover to a U.N. war crimes court by threatening to withdraw its support for a donor conference at which Belgrade hopes to raise a billion dollars, wielding an influence well beyond Moscow's grasp.
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