Threat to 'Slavic allies' unites parties in Russia

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S feuding politicians united yesterday in warning Western countries against launching air attacks on Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo. President Boris Yeltsin contacted world leaders to advise them against precipitate action, and members of the parliament, split between reformers, centrists, Communists and national ists, said the legislature was also opposed to bombing the Serbs.

The rare show of unity underlined that the Yugoslav wars are an issue on which unilateral Nato action is likely to push Russian foreign policy into a more pronounced anti-Western direction. Since late 1992, Russia has become increasingly assertive about its desire to dominate former Soviet republics and to exert influence over Eastern Europe.

In Bosnia's case, Russian politicians and generals believe it would set a bad precedent if Moscow adopted a passive stance while Nato acted in an area beyond the alliance's frontiers close to Russia's borders. Many Russians suspect the West has exploited the collapse of Communism since 1989 to expand its influence into central Europe and the Balkans. They argue that this trend could result in the extension of the Western umbrella over Ukraine and the Baltic republics.

Although Russia does not rule out close air support for UN peace- keeping forces in Bosnia if they come under attack, it vehemently opposes 'punitive action' against the Serbs. Russia has indicated it would try to exercise its Security Council veto to prevent such measures. 'It should be clearly taken into account that any strikes, even limited, within the framework of air support will lead to the gravest consequences,' the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, wrote in a letter this week to the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

'Any further escalation of the Bosnian conflict may lead to a situation in which the Third World War could erupt,' said Sergei Shakhrai, Mr Yeltsin's Nationalities Minister.

Another factor in Russian thinking is the determination to be seen as a great power that does not merely follow in the West's footsteps every time an international crisis breaks out. The suspicion that Western countries lack the fear for Russia they accorded the Soviet Union provides ammunition for na tionalists who wish to drive Mr Yeltsin from power, but it also affects the outlook of Russian democrats, including the President himself.

Some pro-Serbian Russian politicians have tried to portray Russia and Serbia as Slavic allies against an alien Western world. This hardly squares with historical facts, since Russia did not always support Serbia in the 19th century and the Russian-led Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were often at odds after 1945. However, Russia and Serbia share some common ground, since the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia turned millions of Russians and Serbs into ethnic minorities in newly independent states.