Yeltsin's heated rhetoric raises stakes over former Yugoslavia

WAR IN BOSNIA Moscow is on a collision course with Washington, writes Michael Sheridan
The Russian government's denunciation yesterday of the Nato air raids and cruise missile strikes against the Bosnian Serbs was clearly intended to put the Western alliance on notice that Russian tolerance of its campaign cannot be infinite.

Talk of "genocide" and similar language is normally the preserve of Russian nationalists, who treasure the ties that link Serbs to Russia by their common Orthodox Christianity and generations of pan-Slav enthusiasm.

After successive Balkan conflicts from 1912 to 1945, Churchill and Stalin drew up an agreement to divide their influence 50-50 in Yugoslavia, an ambiguity which allowed Tito to run a non-aligned Communist state more liberal in character than the Eastern European satellites.

The outbreak of war in 1991 when Yugoslavia broke up has threatened to disrupt this balance. After the Nato air strikes and a violent upturn in Russian rhetoric, the disruption now threatens to turn dangerous. The risk is that Moscow and Washington may find themselves ranged on opposing sides of the Yugoslav war, trapping European powers in the middle and perhaps destroying the network of security agreements, such as Nato's Partnership for Peace put in place since the end of the Cold War.

Consider the following. On Tuesday last week Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's liberal Foreign Minister, welcomed Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, to Moscow. So cordial were their talks that Mr Rifkind shared with Mr Kozyrev overnight intelligence reports from Sarajevo on the deployment of Bosnian Serb artillery. Mr Kozyrev, speaking to the cameras, deplored the Nato air strikes and said "we can only hope and we require that the campaign should end". The combination of the public, reproving Kozyrev and the private, understanding Kozyrev, seemed to Mr Rifkind a reassuring continuation of the characteristic Russian posture throughout the Bosnian crisis.

But a more ominous note was sounded when the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, cancelled a planned meeting with Mr Rifkind on the flimsy pretext that he was campaigning in Kursk. Then, last Friday, President Boris Yeltsin weighed in with a strong attack on Nato, saying its use of force in Yugoslavia exemplified the threat to Russian interests posed by Nato's planned expansion to the east. Mr Yeltsin warned of "a conflagration of war throughout all of Europe" if that should come to pass.

This could be Mr Yeltsin's response to the government's electoral problems. If Western policymakers wanted proof of the inherent dangers posed by Russian domestic upheaval they need have looked no further than the rowdy proceedings in the Duma over the weekend.

Admittedly, most liberal politicians in the 450-member Duma boycotted the session, leaving a rump of 260. None the less, those deputies present voted by 258 to two to approve a non-binding resolution which called on Mr Yeltsin to suspend Russia's Partnership for Peace agreement with Nato and demanded that Russia unilaterally lift sanctions on Serbia. Mr Kozyrev was singled out for derision and christened "the minister of national disgrace" by Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader.

In London, officials were downplaying the significance of Russian rhetoric yesterday, noting that Moscow was still part of the diplomatic effort to end the Yugoslav conflict. "Although the words have changed I don't think our analysis of the problem has changed fundamentally," a British official said.

Mr Kozyrev and senior Russian officials privately warn that the problem with the Bosnia issue lies in the way it can serve to highlight Russia's humiliation as a former superpower and Mr Yeltsin's economic and security dependence on the West.

The danger of a Russian-American stand-off in the Balkans is well understood - the Washington Post editorialised this week that "nobody in Washington should want a fight with Moscow on what is to both, finally, a symbolic issue". That is why President Bill Clinton has dispatched his Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, to Moscow, on a mission to tell the Russians that much more than the fate of Bosnia is at stake in this argument.