Moscow sows confusion as it plays key role in Belgrade's endgame

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The Independent Online

Just as in the Kosovo crisis 18 months ago, Russia is emerging as a key to the intense diplomatic manoeuvring to force Slobodan Milosevic from power in Yugoslavia. Now as then, however, it is steering a tricky course, seeking to work with the West yet avoid appearing to its domestic audience as a mere stooge.

Just as in the Kosovo crisis 18 months ago, Russia is emerging as a key to the intense diplomatic manoeuvring to force Slobodan Milosevic from power in Yugoslavia. Now as then, however, it is steering a tricky course, seeking to work with the West yet avoid appearing to its domestic audience as a mere stooge.

Hence, diplomats say, the conflicting signals from Moscow during the past 36 hours: first the statement by Germany, not contradicted by the Kremlin, that President Valdimir Putin had accepted during a conversation with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, on Sunday that the opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica had won the 24 September Yugoslav election outright - only for the Russians to take an entirely new stance yesterday.

With his invitation to "both candidates in the second round" to come to Moscow for talks on a solution to the political crisis, Mr Putin has implicitly accepted the first round result which gave almost 49 per cent to Mr Kostunica and 39 per cent to Mr Milosevic. In doing so he has dashed Western hopes that Russia would come out squarely against the Yugoslav President, depriving him of his one important ally.

A Nato country diplomat said yesterday: "All this shows is that the Russians are hopelessly confused about what to do. They were as surprised as the rest of us by the first round result. The tough pro-Milosevic line initially came from the Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov; that went too far for Putin, who's now trying to find a way out. That explains the strict legalistic approach to the whole affair that they are adopting."

Furthermore, Mr Putin must not foster the impression that Moscow's policy is being dictated by Nato, leading it abruptly to abandon a man widely seen in Russia as a symbol of defiance against Nato and its all-powerful master, the United States. The refusal to back Mr Milosevic outright was "treacherous", said Gennady Zugyanov, the Communist Party leader, speaking for the sizeable nationalist and anti-Western lobby in the country.

Reinforcing the impression that what the talks offer is little more than a gesture was its lack of urgency. Even if they take place, it will not be before Friday at the earliest, after Mr Putin has returned from a visit to India, and just two days before the scheduled second vote.

"My guess is that neither will go," one British official said yesterday, pointing to the remark of Borislav Milosevic, the President's older brother and Yugoslavia's ambassador in Moscow, that he saw "no cause" for Russian mediation. "If Kostunica goes, he will be tacitly acknowledging the first round results, which he and the entire Yugoslav opposition have maintained were rigged, and will be accepting the legitimacy of a second round. And a second round will be harder to monitor, and thus easier for Milosevic to rig than the first one."

Complicating matters further still is Russia's potential role as a sanctuary for Mr Milosevic, should he leave office - enabling him to escape the clutches of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

In public, at least, the British and Americans are adamant there can be no bargain with Mr Milosevic offering him immunity in return for a peaceful surrender of power. To do so, they argue, would make a mockery of the prosecutions under way of other Yugoslav war criminals.

None the less, few believe the topic has not been foremost in the flurry of phone calls between Mr Putin and other Western leaders about the Belgrade crisis, and the efforts by Greece, Serbia's traditional orthodox ally, and France, which holds the European Union presidency, to find a solution.

If President Milosevic does go into exile, Russia remains the most obvious place.

Mr Putin may be unsure how to react, but Russia's current oil-fuelled export boom means that it has no need to curry favour in the West for financial support.

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