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The Bosnia Crisis: Resurgent Russia: Yeltsin triumphs on the European stage

THE Russian Defence Ministry's official organ, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), yesterday blasted Nato for its air-strike ultimatum. 'If the West really wants peace in the Balkans, it must understand and accept the position of Russia: it must be treated as a great power and an equal partner, not just in words but in deeds,' said the publication, which earlier blamed 'Muslim extremists' for the attack on Sarajevo's Old Market two weeks ago that left 68 dead.

The ministry's message is essentially the same as that delivered to John Major earlier in the week by President Boris Yeltsin, which prompted Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a leading liberal daily, to run the following front page headline, 'Spectre of a new Cold War - by Monday Europe may be divided again'.

'Russia is using the crisis in former Yugosolvia to assert itself on the European stage, on the international stage as a political force,' says Ibrahim Djikic, who used to be number two in the Yugoslav Embassy, but left to set up a rival Bosnian mission. Mr Djikic would be a lot more excited about Russia's role as an honest broker in the Balkans if it would first agree to call his three-room quarters on Leninsky Prospekt an embassy, permit diplomatic plates on his scruffy Lada car, extend other courtesies of the Vienna Convention and, in short, acknowledge Bosnia's right to exist.

'The Russian position has been known for a long time: it supports Serbia,' says Mr Djikic. 'Russia has always defended Serbia and its interests.'

It is this tilt, of course, that gives Moscow influence among the Bosnian Serbs and produced what is being trumpeted as a diplomatic triumph: the withdrawal of heavy artillery from the hills around Sarajevo.

Mr Djikic, funded by Bosnian businessmen in Moscow and assisted by a lone secretary, is sceptical. He gets his news from Bosna-Press, a faxed sheet produced daily by the Moscow correspondent of the Bosnian newspaper, Oslobodenje. It ranges from the D-Mark price for petrol on the Sarajevo market to the latest casualties.

The main stimulus for Moscow's newly aggressive diplomacy is domestic. President Yeltsin, weakened by a far-right surge in parliamentary elections, wants to shake off accusations of meek obedience to the West and blunt the appeal of extreme nationalists.

Russia's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, arrived back in Moscow hailing Mr Yeltsin's 'brilliant idea'. The chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, ex-ambassador to Washington Vladimir Lukin, spoke of a 'great success for Russian diplomacy'. Rarely mentioned is the fact that Bosnian Serbs accepted Russian persuasion only after the countdown to air strikes had begun.

Russia has brought a first real glimmer of hope, but it has also added a new element of volatile uncertainty. Moscow is divided about how far to push. Postfactum news agency reports that Russian paratroopers will move to Sarajevo only if Nato lifts its air-strike threat. Such a stance would match the position of many in the military, but it was dismissed by officials yesterday as a 'mistake'.

Mr Djikic, the would-be Bosnian ambassador, also gets confused. 'When the Russian Foreign Ministry needs something from me, the problem of diplomatic relations is never mentioned,' he says. 'But when I need something, it pops up again.'

Compared with the West's disarray, though, Russian policy can seem a model of a clarity.