The War In The Balkans: Primakov flies to Belgrade for talks

The Negotiator
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Russia's Prime Minister pulled off an international diplomatic coup, a delighted Jacques Chirac sent a note to Boris Yeltsin. "Bravo for Primakov!" it read.

That was back in 1997 when, as Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov averted air strikes on Baghdad, albeit not for long. Today, as the veteran negotiator sets off to Belgrade for talks with Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, the chance of more plaudits seems remote.

Russia is widely seen as the key to persuading Yugoslavia, its traditional ally, to agree to a peace deal. France and Italy yesterday both urged on Mr Primakov, who was celebrating the International Monetary Fund's reported decision to make yet another credit to Moscow. But none will be more aware than he of the immensity of the task. Mr Primakov will fly to Yugoslavia with the Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, and the Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev - both of whom have been scathing in their criticism of Nato's bombings. Yesterday they cranked up their attacks on the West still further.

Mr Ivanov questioned the truth of reports that the Serbs had carried out genocide against the Kosovar Albanians; an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission, stationed in Kosovo before the bombings began, saw only "individual clashes". He also said the survival of the six-nation Contact Group (UK, France, US, Russia, Italy and Germany), which tried to mediate between Yugoslavia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, was now in doubt.

Marshal Sergeyev claimed 1,000 citizens had already died in the assaults. And sources in his ministry told Interfax news agency that Nato had been lying about targets which were mostly civilian.

As the Russian rhetoric gathered sound and fury, the Kremlin took credit for ordering the peace mission, which will also include the head of Russia's foreign and state intelligence service. President Yeltsin's spokesman said it was "to co-ordinate steps [with Milosevic] which could help find a political solution to the conflict which has emerged because of Nato's military action". Russian news agencies said the delegation may then go from Belgrade to Bonn, presumably to talk to leaders of Nato countries.

Mr Primakov, 69, has long experience of dealing with errant dictators. In 1991, he went to Baghdad to see if he could persuade Saddam Hussein to avoid the Gulf conflict. Mr Primakov wrote a memoir whose title he will again view as apt: A War That Did Not Have To Happen.