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Russia Vows to Side With Long-Allied Serbs

NATO's ultimatum is testing the US's fragile partnership with Russia, European unity, and the role of the UN secretary-general

THREE years ago the Soviet Union was willing to turn its back on its longtime ally, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in favor of a partnership with the West. But Russia today is not so willing.

The Russian government is now opposing a similar Western alliance to launch airstrikes at their former Yugoslav partners, giving clear evidence that it is more willing to assert Russian interests when they diverge from those of the West.

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``Until this moment, the West enjoyed the possibility to have a loyal partner in Russia,'' says parliament deputy and former Yeltsin adviser Sergei Stankevich. But, he warns, if NATO goes ahead with threatened airstrikes, ``I am afraid the previous attempt to have a strategic partnership [with the West] can be suspended.''

Russian officials argue that they are doing what any Western government is doing in its policy toward Bosnia - responding to domestic public opinion.

``If a full-scale air battle is started in Bosnia, I'm afraid the Russian government will have to make certain corrections in accord with very strong pro-Serb sentiment among the Russian public,'' Mr. Stankevich says.

Serious tensions

United States President Clinton told reporters on Wednesday that he was unsuccessful in reaching President Boris Yeltsin to try to explain the NATO move and gain at least Russian ``understanding.'' But Mr. Yeltsin adviser Andranik Migranian says that if Yeltsin and his liberal Foreign Minister Andrei Kozryev support the NATO move, ``they'll create serious tensions between the president, foreign office, and the Duma [the parliament], and the political class as a whole.''

While Russia voted in support of economic sanctions against Yugoslavia and backed the use of force to support UN humanitarian relief efforts, the Russian government has also consistently opposed outside military intervention. Russia now argues that NATO airstrikes would require a fresh decision by the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto. But that view has not been accepted by the Western powers or by the UN secretary-general, who contend the previous resolutions provided sufficient authority to use force.

The government's stance enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. Among the political parties in the Duma, there is not a single voice supporting Western military intervention.

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At its most extreme, there is Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who recently returned from a visit to Serbia. He called on the lower house of parliament, where his Liberal Democratic Party holds a large bloc of seats, to heed the voices of their Slavic and Orthodox Christian brothers in Serbia.

In typically bombastic terms, Mr. Zhirinovsky then pointed to the gallery where Western journalists and diplomats were sitting. ``I am telling you [the West], on behalf of the party which won the elections, that any shelling of Bosnian cities will be an announcement of war with Russia.''

Yegor Gaidar, leader of the liberal Russia's Choice party, was equally clear in opposing airstrikes. ``Any drastic actions would not serve the cause of peace in Bosnia but would only escalate the war there,'' he told reporters on Wednesday. He contends that the West holds a simplistic view of the conflict, dividing the combatants into ``angels'' and ``devils.''

Breaking the balance

The Yabloko bloc headed by reformer Grigory Yavlinsky issued a toughly worded statement on Wednesday, warning that the ``involvement of the NATO military-political bloc into an armed conflict beyond NATO's sphere may break the military-political balance in Europe and contradicts Russia's national interests.''

The continuous shelling of Sarajevo ``is an outrageous fact and Serbs are primarily responsible for it,'' says deputy Yevgeny Ambartsumov, a Yabloko member. But he cites UN officials who agree that all three warring sides in the conflict are responsible for what has occurred.

Mr. Ambartsumov and his party favor a gradual lifting of economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, who they claim are not participating in the war. But he believes the Russian government will likely confine its response to a NATO airstrike to a condemnatory statement.

Yet Ambartsumov and fellow moderates warn that the Western action will ultimately strengthen the hand of Russia's extremist forces, such as Zhirinovsky and the Communists. ``They would say, `You see, NATO doesn't take the current Russian leadership - Yeltsin and Kozyrev - into account; you see what state they have reduced our country to.''

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