The Bosnia Crisis: Russia clings to a dangerous liaison: Divided politicians play on traditional sympathies and unite in hysterical warning to the West; Pan-Slav Solidarity

WHEN Anna Karenina kills herself, Count Vronsky is for six weeks struck dumb by grief. He refuses to eat; he refuses to get up; he gets toothache. But, to express the full depth of this despair, Tolstoy uses another literary device: he puts him on a train to Serbia.

'The Serbian war is a blessing from Providence for us,' explains Vronsky's aged mother. 'I don't understand the rights and wrongs of it but for him it is a godsend.' So, with nagging toothache and a head full of ideas about saving Russia's Slavic kin, Vronsky sets off to war.

Serbia is again proving a dangerous but seductive distraction for Russia. It alone can rouse a desperate, dithering and utterly divided political elite. Finally, here is an issue members of the State Duma, Russia's raucous new parliament, can agree on.

On the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia, Russia can speak with one voice: Western armies keep out. Politicians of all stripes have railed at the prospect of Western air strikes against Serbian positions. Nationalism, albeit muddled and unfocused, has become the one area of consensus in Russian politics. And if John Major is to encounter any solid ground during his trip to Russia this week, it will be this.

Which side fired the mortar into Sarajevo's Old Town market cannot be determined conclusively. But while the West blames the Serbs, the official organ of Russia's Defence Ministry, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) offered this unequivocal version: 'Explosion in Sarajevo - a provocation by Muslim extremists.'

Serbia's loudest cheerleader in Moscow is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist leader who has only just returned from a week-long trip to Serbia and Serbian-held territory in Bosnia. He regaled the Duma with travellers' tales: how he had been mobbed by adoring Serbs begging for Russian help, how Vukovar was a new Stalingrad, and how Russia had a sacred mission to defend Orthodox Christianity.

'On behalf of the party which won the election I warn all Western states that if you start this war you will start a Third World War and we will find a response,' he announced. 'The airmen who bomb the cities of Bosnia, their own cities will be destroyed. We will not leave a stone unturned on the territories of those states. Remember that. Hitler was stopped in our fields. Napoleon was stopped. And any other invader who attempts to establish his own order will be stopped. We will not tolerate that.'

He rambled on, gesticulating wildly and extending his threats of a holocaust abroad to embrace his own opponents in Russia. Only then did the chair intervene: 'Please switch off his microphone.'

Zhirinovsky's rant from the floor - carefully scripted and repeated verbatim in a series of television interviews - found ample, if less hysterical, echo in the corridors of parliament and the columns of Russia's serious newspapers. While Zhirinovsky was chided for his threat to reduce Western Europe to a heap of ash, two clear themes emerge: a misty vision of pan-Slav solidarity, and a hard-headed concern that Nato is trying to by- pass, or supplant even, the United Nations and extend its reach deep into Moscow's turf.

'There are no angels and no devils but only a difficult internal conflict with a long history behind it,' said Yegor Gaidar, leader of Russia's Choice, the reformist party drubbed by Mr Zhirinovsky in the December election. 'Of course there is always a temptation to intervene in such a conflict to show one's muscle and resolve. This is a compensation for being unable to solve the problem, for political helplessness.'

Sergei Stankevich, a former darling of pro-Western demokrati now scrambling to find a new constituency, said that air strikes would turn Russia's public and foreign policy against the West. 'The Russian government will be forced to make certain corrections in response to the very strong sentiments of the Russian people.' The same message came from the Kremlin, though with President Boris Yeltsin incommunicado most of the week, it was left to junior aides and hangers-on to enunciate policy.

Andranik Migranyan, a member of the Presidential Council and adovcate of 'enlightened autocracy' at home and a more assertive engagement abroad, roamed the State Duma seeking television cameras: 'This will be the beginning of serious tensions between our countries . . . We are a young democracy. We are learning and especially learning from the United States. American politicians say we would like to do this or that but our public or congress is against it. Only irresponsible politicians can act against the will of the people.'

In reality, many Russians say they feel only indifference. But a dull fear is spreading. 'Eighty years ago Archduke Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo. His death served as a pretext for the beginning of World War I. It is a sad anniversary because history repeats itself,' read the front-page headline in Komsomolskaya Pravda.

As Vronsky goes off to save Serbia in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy explains what can bring Russia to war: 'In a nation of 80 million people there will always be found, not hundreds, as now, but tens of thousands of men who have lost caste, a restless crew ready for anything - to join Pugachev's robber band, to go to Khiva, or to Serbia . . . anywhere.' If anything has changed it is this: now they number 150 million.

Leading article, page 20

(Photographs omitted)

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