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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Wary of Russia's Interests, Motives




BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- One of the bitter jokes going around Belgrade at the moment is that to cross the road you need to look left, look right and look up.


According to President Slobodan Milosevic, a month of NATO bombing has Serbs also looking east, to their fellow Orthodox Slav brothers in Russia.


"Every Serb is looking east with hope, looking where the sun rises," he was quoted as telling a Slovak newspaper last week.


In the first few weeks of NATO airstrikes, some people in Belgrade, which long prided itself as a cosmopolitan city, took out their anger by smashing Western embassies, cultural centers and businesses.


The same people cheered Russian politicians at a rock concert, welcomed Cossacks to what they called a human shield on one of the city's bridges and shouted "Russia! Russia!" at a demonstration outside Serbia's parliament.


Milosevic has even sought to join the loose union between Russia and Belarus, though the two countries are far from the Balkans.


Moscow, keen to reassert itself on the world stage after the collapse of the Soviet superpower, has been flattered by the attention from Belgrade, which broke ties with it in 1948.


Now former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is trying to mediate an end to the bombing.


But far from being encouraged by his efforts, many Serbs view his mission with suspicion.


Brought up in the Cold War years when Yugoslavia was a wedge between East and West, they see themselves as pawns in a game between the world's great powers and fear Russian involvement could make their predicament worse.


The main worry is that Moscow will try to use the conflict to gain military influence over the Balkans.


This was bolstered when Chernomyrdin emerged from a day of talks with Milosevic last week saying the Yugoslav leader had agreed to a UN-led force in Kosovo, including Russians, as part of a package of peace proposals for the Serbian province.


Asked if they thought Chernomyrdin could bring an end the bombing, people interviewed at random in Belgrade over the weekend said no.


"I doubt he could help," said Alexandar Vlajkovic, an editor at Serbian state television, standing outside the ruins of one of its buildings hit by NATO. "I think the Russians are actually worse than the others in a way, because they are not genuine. They are talking about our interests while wanting to get their own army in [to Kosovo] ."


Dejan Anastasievic, a journalist at the liberal weekly Vreme, also doubted the Russian initiative would fly.


"Why would NATO bomb just to let the Russians put their troops in?" he said, referring to U.S. insistence that any military force in the province be NATO-led.


His doubts stem less from fear of a Russian takeover than a feeling that the standoff between the West and Milosevic has gone much too far to be resolved diplomatically, and that Russia is too weak to be a viable mediator.


Even Milosevic has played down Moscow's diplomatic role. His foreign ministry denied he had agreed to any military force and he himself made clear it was military aid he wanted most.


Russia's response to Serbia is further evidence that the relationship is more complicated than straightforward brotherly solidarity.


The Russian authorities responded coolly to Belgrade's request to join their union with Belarus, and President Boris Yeltsin has said Milosevic is not the easiest negotiating partner.


"Sometimes you have to speak to him two, three, five, 10 or 20 times," he cautioned before the airstrikes began.


Moscow has been strong on anti-NATO rhetoric but short on actions that could lead to a confrontation.


Anya, a public relations executive from Belgrade, is one Serb who would rather it stayed that way.


"Serbs don't want Russia involved," she said. "What for? To pull in the whole of Europe, to bomb Paris and Rome? Even Serbs are not that vengeful," she said.