Russian-US Relations Take Hit in Balkan War Serbs' Ethnic Brethren Target Western 'Bias'

Article excerpt

WHEN right-wing nationalists rallied in Moscow last week, shouting "the war against Orthodox Serbs is a war against Russia, against the Slavonic peoples," fewer than 200 Muscovites bothered to listen.

But even the most West-leaning Russians tend to be strongly pro-Serb, and they are increasingly baffled and chagrined by what they see as American one-sidedness in the Balkan war.

This weekend's Croat offensive against Serbian forces in the Krajina region of eastern Croatia - and the tacit approval of the US - is sharpening ancient cultural divisions and creating new dismay among Russians.

By taking such an unbalanced, anti-Serb position, the US has let the Balkans deteriorate into a place where "each major power has its own clients," says Vladimir Averchev, a moderate parliamentary deputy on the international affairs committee.

Bear-sized backer

This is why Russian President Boris Yeltsin suggested yesterday that he is trying to put Russia at the center of brokering the Balkan conflict. He invited the Serbian and Croatian presidents to Moscow for peace talks.

While he did not explicitly criticize Croatia's attack, a foreign ministry official said Russia might seek United Nations sanctions against Croatia, according to the Interfax news agency.

Further, if the United States Congress decides to unilaterally lift the arms embargo from the Bosnian Muslims over President Clinton's objections, then the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament), Mr. Averchev worries, may respond by trying to unilaterally lift its economic embargo on the Serbs.

Even if Mr. Yeltsin were to approve such a measure, it would probably not impact the war in the Balkans, Averchev says. But such a confrontation of sympathies between the US and Russia would be "very dangerous" to relations between the two powers.

Croatia's reentry into the battle came just days after the US Senate and House passed a resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnian Muslims, a move Russian diplomats strongly criticized.

While Americans might see these moves as ways of containing or rebutting Serbian aggression, Russians see both the lifting of the arms embargo and the Croatian offensive as so much more gasoline on the devastating fires of Balkan violence. …