Worried about Boris, not Bosnia: The new Russian-American agenda is hampering international efforts to bring peace to the Balkans, says Peter Pringle

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The Independent Online
THE ERA of barefaced deception by Russian diplomats at the United Nations is over - well, sort of. Yuli Vorontsov, the long-serving Russian ambassador to the UN, came out of a meeting of the Security Council on Monday and made a statement that was fully worthy of his days under Soviet rule. Looking the cameras in the eye, he said that Moscow's request to delay the council's vote on new sanctions against Belgrade was not coupled with any problems at home.

Everyone here in New York, in Washington, London, Paris and beyond, knows that the Russians asked for the delay so that President Boris Yeltsin would not be saddled with an embarrassing Security Council vote against the Serbs between now and the 25 April referendum on his economic reforms. The Russian leader told President Bill Clinton as much at the Vancouver summit.

So what was Mr Vorontsov up to? He wants the world to be persuaded that there is no reason for a quick vote on new sanctions against Serbia while Russian diplomats are still trying to persuade the Serbs to cut back on their 'ethnic cleansing', let through UN food supplies to Bosnia's besieged Muslims and return to the negotiating table prepared by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen.

The problem is that no one at the UN, or elsewhere it seems, has any confidence in Russian diplomacy being able to deliver even one of these items. When Moscow's special envoy, Vitaly Churkin, reported this week on his talks with the Serbs, Mr Vance and Lord Owen told the Security Council that they were now more depressed about the prospects of the Serbs signing up to the peace plan than they had been in recent days.

All of this has more than a whiff of Moscow's behaviour before the Gulf war. Then, seemingly endless diplomatic shuttles and last-minute assignations with Iraqi leaders failed to produce a negotiated solution but successfully delayed the first allied attack on Baghdad.

So why did the Security Council accede to Russia's request for a delay in new sanctions? Because Mr Clinton is busy building a personal relationship with Mr Yeltsin.

At one level this is perfectly acceptable. If Mr Clinton believes he can influence the outcome of the Russian referendum by preventing Mr Yeltsin from being embarrassed by a Security Council vote, then the White House move is quite logical. The Bosnian Serbs, of course, have taken the UN inaction as a signal that they can continue to attack Muslims with impunity.

But an American president must not look at these things through a Bosnian prism. He is faced with the dilemma of maintaining wider relations between the United States and Russia. In addition, Mr Clinton must guard against a possible comeback by the right wing, which on some distant day could charge that his abandonment of Mr Yeltsin at the crucial hour was the reason for the end of Russian reforms.

Evidence would suggest, however, that the West's ability to influence Russian voters is marginal at best; you have only to look at the overenthusiastic Western support for Mikhail Gorbachev to understand that it can also rebound. There may even be a question-mark over the true strength of the Russians' much-publicised sympathy for the Serbs as brother Slavs.

But what is especially depressing about the new moves by Moscow and Washington is the possibility of a return to a situation that everyone thought had been left behind: the Russian veto at the Security Council.

Lacking a clear-cut policy on Bosnia, the United States has been playing its Russia card at the expense of efforts by others, not least by Messrs Vance and Owen, to bring peace to Bosnia. The latest delay in adopting tougher sanctions against the Serbs was in fact the third in a row. The first came immediately after Mr Vance and Lord Owen had managed, against great odds, to persuade the Bosnian Muslims to join the Croats in accepting their plan to divide the country into semi-autonomous regions. The move isolated the Serbs and prepared them for a new round of sanctions designed to persuade them to sign the plan, too. But because of Washington's procrastination, the Security Council missed a chance to impose the new sanctions before the Serbian parliament rejected the peace plan.

The US administration, always half- hearted on the Vance-Owen plan, felt it could only 'commend' and not endorse it in the new sanctions resolution. This also wasted precious time.

Then came the Vancouver summit, and Washington again delayed the sanctions vote, warning its allies that Mr Yeltsin would be embarrassed by such a move on the eve of the meeting. Now there is Mr Yelstin's referendum.

In each of the delays, the US persuaded its reluctant allies, Britain, France and Spain, to follow suit. Normally composed ambassadors of those countries were huffing and puffing in the corridors, enraged that in attending to the needs of the new US-Russia relationship, Washington had rendered the Security Council inactive. The Serbs, understandably, felt invulnerable and broke a two-week ceasefire.

No wonder the non-aligned members of the Security Council rebelled. Cape Verde, Djibouti, Morocco, Pakistan and Venezuela complained that the council was being held hostage to Russia's internal political problems. If the Russians wanted to side with the Serbs they should go ahead and do so openly, the non-aligned states argued, otherwise the international community was only displaying its paralysis in efforts to help those suffering in Bosnia. What all members of the council had been feeling was that the delays also served to cover up Washington's inability to make up its mind about what to do in Bosnia.

At this point in the peace efforts it seems that diplomacy may have run its course. If, as expected, the Russian diplomatic shuttle fails, there can be no certainty that Moscow will come back after 25 April and support the Vance-Owen plan. Washington is not even prepared to provide an incentive by linking in financial aid. The return of the era of the Soviet veto at the UN is now a possibility.

The prospects for the people of Bosnia are grim. Britain and France will not keep troops there without a UN mandate, and Security Council members have not begun to consider any alternatives - such as a UN transitional authority like the one in place in Cambodia.

Other than allowing the factions to fight it out, that leaves the US with the possibility of unilateral military action, as in Somalia. But General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refuses to entertain such a policy: it is a quagmire not fit for US troops, he says. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, says Bosnia is 'a centuries-old problem that comes from hell. The United States simply does not have the means to make people in that region of the world like each other.' With the new Russian- American agenda guiding the international community on Balkan policy, there will be no peace soon, it seems.

(Photograph omitted)