War in The Balkans: Russia fumes as Hungary stops its convoy of aid

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The Independent Online
IN A flare-up of tension with the West, Russia was angered yesterday to learn that a convoy of aid lorries it is sending to Yugoslavia has been held up by customs officers in Hungary, now a member of Nato.

The Russian and Hungarian foreign ministries were trying to sort out the dispute, which could aggravate already severe tension between Moscow and the West over the Balkans crisis.

Although Russia is poor enough to be receiving humanitarian aid from the West, Moscow last week found stocks of food, medicine and blankets for Yugoslavia. Orthodox priests blessed the convoy of white-painted lorries, which were supposed to arrive in Belgrade in time for Easter, celebrated this weekend by Russians and Serbs alike. However, the icon-bedecked convoy was also to deliver aid to Muslim Albanian refugees in a signal from Moscow that it cared about both sides in the ethnic and religious conflict.

The lorries were stopped at the border between Ukraine and Hungary. The Hungarian customs objected to the fact that some of the vehicles were armour-plated, which could give them a dual civilian or military purpose. The Russian charity workers said the armour plating was to protect them on roads where they could be shot at.

A reporter for the independent Russian NTV channel said that every time the drivers tried to satisfy the Hungarians, they came up with new bureaucratic pretexts to stop the convoy. Similar delays have arisen in Russia, when humanitarian aid sent from the West has been held up at docks by Russian customs officials.

The Russians feel their aid has been thrown back in their faces. The NTV reporter captured another undertone of Russian annoyance when he said there had never been problems on the road before Hungary, once a member of the Warsaw Pact, joined the Nato alliance.

The war in Yugoslavia has brought relations between Russian and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Opinion polls show that 92 per cent of Russians oppose Nato's action. There is a strong element of hurt national pride and Slav solidarity with the Serbs But many Russians also genuinely feel that bombing is the wrong way to solve delicate ethnic problems in the Balkans and that their opinions are being disregarded.

President Boris Yeltsin, under increasing pressure from Communists and nationalists at home, is trying to keep Russia out of the war. Last week, scare stories that Russia was re-aiming its nuclear missiles on Nato members were denied and it seemed unlikely that a suggested union between Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia would actually get off the ground.

However, the longer the war goes on, the greater the danger that Russia could be sucked in. If the aid convoy does enter Yugoslavia, Nato bombers must be careful that no stray rocket accidentally hits it.

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