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A Three-Finger Salute

MOSCOW'S independent decision to send ``peacekeeping'' troops into Sarajevo on the Serb side of the conflict was first applauded by the White House. The move was seen as helping the Serbs ``save face,'' as they removed heavy weapons from a deadly one-sided seige. That NATO issued an ultimatum on the Serbs without consulting Moscow, and that Russia answered with its own unilateral action, essentially putting its soldiers between NATO planes and Serb forces, is actually quite troubling. The White House may see a benefit in having President Yeltsin score a diplomatic victory at home for free by appeasing Russian nationalists. But the administration has wisely put a damper on Mr. Yeltsin's new effort to deal Russia into the Balkans further by holding a one-day ``great power'' summit that would ostensibly ``settle the issue.''

The White House must vigorously counter the hard-line effort in Moscow and Belgrade to use Bosnia as a way to play Russia off the US. Clearly the Serbs, led by Slobodan Milosevic, the most imaginative and ruthless politician in Europe, would like to pump up Russian nationalism and to have Moscow secure its ill-got gains in Bosnia.

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The line created by Russian troops in Sarajevo is not some vague cultural line between East and West; it is a line between the idea of liberal multi-ethnic values - and ethnic and fascist beliefs. In one sense, what Washington or London or Bonn would like to believe the Russian-Serb connection means is not the issue; the issue is what the Russians and Serbs themselves believe it to mean.

The three-fingered Serb salute given by Russian troops to Serb troops this week as they jubiliantly entered Bosnia says more than stacks of Western policy options and position papers do. The salute signals a shared ``ethnic logic.'' It doesn't matter that a Serb-Russian Slavic brotherhood is historical fiction; for now the story has power in the minds of the people. The three-fingered salute suggests to both groups that what counts most is not human rights, community of nations, tolerance, and democracy - but the use of power to subvert those considered ethnically inferior. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic told Serb troops they had backed off from Sarajevo because Moscow entered the war. Many Russians now in Bosnia were in Abkhazia, helping rebels undercut Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Russia's Balkan move may be choreographed by Belgrade; Yeltsin may want a moderate stance. But having lost Poland, Hungary, and the Czech lands, it is not unlikely that Belgrade has told powerful Russian hard-liners that for help in the Balkans and cheap oil, Serbia will offer Moscow a new arm into Europe.

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