Nato in Kosovo: The five-minute hero - How a career setback sparked the general's charge to Pristina

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AFTER a tense week of negotiations, Russia has climbed down and settled its differences with Nato over its peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. But what of the man who started it, the Russian general who stunned the world and exasperated Nato's top brass by seizing an air base in Pristina and winning the scramble into Kosovo?

The manoeuvre created a diplomatic crisis finally settled late on Friday night in Helsinki after three days of haggling between the Americans and the Russians. But, according to sources, personal issues were also at stake; they say that General Viktor Zavarzin had a particular score to settle with Nato.

Before the alliance's air strikes began nearly three months ago, the general was expecting to be promoted on Victory Day - 9 May - when Russians celebrate the defeat of Hitler. He had put in 17 months as Russia's first senior military officer assigned to Nato in Brussels, a post born of the Founding Act signed between Moscow and the expanding alliance in 1997. Sources say his promotion was already approved.

Nato's bombing spoiled it. His masters in Moscow were angry that he had not supplied them with details from his Nato contacts about precisely when the air war - which was universally expected - would begin. His promotion was put on ice and, after being recalled to Russia with the freeze of Russia's relations with Nato, he was suspended for a week.

"Moscow wanted to sack him," said Viktor Baranets, a former senior aide to Igor Rodionov, Russia's previous defence minister. "It was a hard blow for him as an officer. So he has personal scores to settle with those who damaged his career."

The chance finally came last weekend when a band of some 200 Russian paratroopers raced into Kosovo under cover of darkness, at speeds of up to 70mph, observing radio silence to avoid alerting Nato. The stunt cast a pall over Russia's relations with the West, but the general became an overnight celebrity.

Reports in Moscow say General Zavarzin, 50, was a moving force behind the plan. The intention was to force Nato to pay more heed to Russia's demands for a prominent role in the Kosovo peacekeeping operation; after playing a critical part in the peace deal, Moscow believed Nato was elbowing it aside.

The respected Kommersant newspaper has identified the general as the mastermind, saying he relayed his idea from Bosnia - where he had suddenly appeared - to the Chief of the General Staff in Moscow, General Anatoly Kvashnin. The latter presented it to Mr Yeltsin for approval only half- an-hour before the operation began. The result was the pinnacle of an otherwise obscure combat commander's career. After a background in the mechanised infantry, General Zavarzin was appointed in 1994 to command 25,000 peacekeeping troops from the Commonwealth of Independent States in the turbulent republic of Tajikistan.

He was an unusual choice for the Nato job; the Russians jokingly call the military top brass, who glide to power without ever seeing action, "parquet generals", after the wooden floors in their ministry offices. The bluff and chubby General Zavarzin is the opposite.

His command of English is weak; he had limited experience of diplomacy, although he attended the Kosovo peace talks alongside Russia's envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin. Nor does he have the looks or manner of a high- flying sophisticate. Mr Baranets said: "Zavarzin looks like a slogger, a trench-digger, but he is brilliantly educated - a real Russian general."

When the general arrived in Brussels, he startled Russian-speaking western officials by immediately addressing them as "ty" - the familiar second- person singular which is considered rude in conversation with strangers.

"I think he was a fairly crude figure," said one western source in Brussels, "a rough diamond who has spent much of his time peacekeeping in hot-spots in the former Soviet Union. Which means his definition of peacekeeping is rather different from ours."

The general and his delegation quickly gained a reputation for not playing by Nato's rules. While others built friendships and contacts over lunch or games of tennis, the Russians remained apart.

Instead of working in Nato's headquarters, they based themselves in the Russian embassy, maintaining only temporary offices at the alliance buildings. When the air strikes began on 24 March, the general was recalled from Brussels. He is unlikely to be welcomed back, even though the peacekeeping issue is now resolved, because Moscow abandoned its demand for its own sector.

By stealing a march into Kosovo, he wrecked Nato's hour of triumph, and disrupted the first stages of the entire ground operation. But, back home, he was the toast of the hour.

The Russian military was delighted and there were tributes in the media. "We had never heard of him before, but now he has got a very big reputation," one senior Russian army officer said.

Boris Yeltsin - a consummate opportunist - was quick to join the applause after Pristina, and swiftly slapped a third star on the Lieutenant-General's broad shoulders by promoting him to Colonel-General. Thus, while his hour of glory may not have lasted long, the general's grudge was settled: at least he got his promotion in the end.