War In The Balkans: Russia - Yeltsin takes hard line to keep the voters happy

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The Independent Online
THE CLUE that confirmed Russia had decided to sign up to the Kosovo agreement came not in Germany but many miles to the east, in a gilded hall in the Kremlin.

Boris Yeltsin used a tactic he has adopted before when giving ground: he made an angry speech attacking the West and airing his grievances over Nato's bombardment of Yugoslavia.

At a televised Kremlin ceremony for new ambassadors, the bespectacled President, reading from text with extra-large script, condemned the "aggression against sovereign Yugoslavia" as "another attempt to establish a dictatorship of force". Not long afterwards he was on the telephone to Bill Clinton and China's Jiang Zemin, discussing his acceptance of the deal.

The President's speech was his first public comment on the Kosovo peace plan since its foundations were laid in Belgrade last week by his envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, and the US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott.

But Mr Yeltsin's silence was more of a tactic spawned by domestic political concerns than a gesture of support to the little-liked Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, or - a factor that has been exaggerated in this dispute - Moscow's sympathies for other Orthodox Christian states.

So intense was the opposition to the Belgrade accord within Moscow's political arena and among the Russian military that the "family" - Mr Yeltsin's advisers, dominated by his younger daughter, Tatyana - appeared to think the issue required careful handling.

With parliamentary elections looming in December and presidential elections next year, any suggestion of yielding to the West would play into the hands of the Communists and nationalists in the Duma.

The Kremlin team decided that Mr Yeltsin should be seen to distance himself from the deal. He dispatched his Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, to the G8 meeting in Germany with orders to show - by tough haggling - that Moscow was not easily won over. Mr Chernomyrdin was left alone at home to be the fall guy and had to field volleys of criticism in which he was accused of capitulating to Nato's demands. On Monday, the Duma drafted documents calling for his sacking as envoy.

Ultimately, it was in Russia's interests to play a prominent role in the diplomatic process rather than walk away, as Mr Yeltsin threatened to during the bleaker moments of the conflict. The country is politically and economically weak, and has much to lose from further isolation from the West. That factor, alongside Nato's and Washington's anxiety to avoid a ground war, proved crucial.

But further hurdles loom for Nato, not least the question of Russia's generals. The gap that still yawns between Nato and Moscow over who commands the Kosovo peace- keeping force was forcibly illustrated by the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, who stressed that Russia's contingent would not be under Nato command. Mr Chernomyrdin said: "We reject the Bosnian scheme where the Russian peacekeeping brigade is in operational subordination to the command of Nato and the United States."

Mr Clinton told Mr Yeltsin yesterday that he was dispatching Mr Talbott to Moscow to try to settle the issue. But Western sources are predicting that the Russian forces will report to their own Defence Ministry - where anti-Nato sentiment is particularly strong - no matter what is formally agreed between the two sides.