There's more to it than Slav fellow feeling: In his talks with Mr Yeltsin, Mr Major should consider Russia's affinity with Serbia, says Susan Richards

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The Independent Online
THE REASSURING television pictures of John Major and Boris Yeltsin smiling into the cameras with which we are likely to be bombarded today should not let us forget the words of Russia's foreign minister over the weekend. As the United Nations and Nato moved reluctantly towards action against the Serbs, Andrei Kozyrev warned that Sarajevo could become the flashpoint for another world war. What's going on?

Between our view of the Balkan situation and that of Russia there is a dangerous perceptual gulf. While we debated the degree to which the beleaguered Bosnian Muslims could be helped by any intervention, the Russian press, for all its new freedom, has been interpreting the West's intentions as aggression. Although President Yeltsin has since taken care to reassure us that he will restrain the pan-Slavism of his fellow countrymen, we need to look beyond personalities if we are to understand the significance of what is beginning to happen in Russia. Russia's defensive tone on Serbia reflects more than simple fellow feeling for a Slav and Orthodox people. Russians feel that their position is analogous to that of the Serbs. From their point of view, Yugoslavia was as much a Serb empire as the Soviet Union was a Russian one. Unlike the British empire, which was on the other side of the world, Russia's colonies are her neighbours and the process whereby she acquired them has been going on for so long that her sense of national identity would suffer without them. Russia's history is, quite simply, one of expansion.

When Russia lost her Soviet colonies three to four years ago, it seemed remarkable that opinion polls of the time registered such little sense of loss. There was even some initial relief at being free from the trappings of Soviet identity. The fiction of a union of Soviet socialist republics turned out to have shielded the Russians from having to confront the fact that the empire was really theirs.

Now they are discovering that when their leg is cut off, their brain still 'feels' the leg to be there. It is as if, overnight, not just Scotland and Wales but Yorkshire and Cornwall, too, became countries separate fromEngland. Russia's attempts to work out who she is and how many legs she needs will remain a destabilising factor in the world for a long time.

From the Russian perspective, the Serbs are not aggressors, but are resisting a fragmentation of their own territory that is being policed by a West out to protect its own interests. On the psychological level of fears and dreams, Russians see their country as being carved up.

Invasions by Mongols, French and Germans have left Russians with a fear of invasion that has passed into their genes. More recently, their loss of empire was tantamount to another invasion. Moreover, this loss has been accompanied by a catastrophic fall in living standards and a collapse of industrial production. On the level of imagery - films and advertisements - and in terms of products, it is the West that is filling the vacuum.

As yet, this represents only a potential danger. Most Russians are still indifferent to the cause of their fellow Serbs. Ominously, though, the more educated people are, the more pro-Serb they seem to be.

As the economic crisis deepens, the political leadership has only one short cut at its disposal: the old trick of playing on people's fears of an external, foreign threat in order to defuse criticism at home. In Russia's case, restarting her idling military economy offers a short-term alternative to the endless privations that would accompany genuine economic reform.

So far Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the only politician to have played this card openly. Western analysis has hesitated between demonising him and laughing at him following the 43 per cent vote he won in December. But this weekend we caught the theme again from a foreign minister hitherto well-known for his pro-Western views. Whether or not Yeltsin's grasp on power is precarious, the forces that were behind Mr Zhirinovsky's appearance on the political scene will make themselves increasingly felt. In a few years time, Nato's present commitment to intervene in support of Bosnia might indeed provide us with the flashpoint for a world war, with the Russians eager for an excuse for military engagement.

In coming years, there will be no shortage of issues that raise the possibility of international policing or intervention close to the old Soviet borders. Each will have our cold warriors baying for the resumption of familiar hostilities. But those of us whose world remains relatively stable, and who have some inkling of the difficulty of adjusting to post- imperial realities, must not fall for Cold War rhetoric. This time the hostilities would not be the relatively controllable ones of the post- war period. Born of economic desperation, they would be dangerously unpredictable.

The only reasonable course of action open to us is to collaborate more seriously with Russia in addressing the issues of economic and social change and provide capital incentives for investment on a regional basis.

Maybe Mr Kozyrev is trying to remind us that the longer we leave it, the harder it will be for any Russian leader to avoid playing the nationalist card. - The author's book, 'Epics Of Everyday Life', is published by Penguin, pounds 4.95.

(Photograph omitted)