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Noisy Russian, US Lawmakers Push Governments to Take Sides in Balkans

THE rhetoric - denouncing "genocide" and "aggression'' in the Balkans - is almost the same.

But the Russian and American legislatures are now more plainly than ever on opposite sides in the Balkan conflict, with Americans empathetic toward Bosnian Muslims and Croats and Russians favoring their historic allies, the Serbs.

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On Saturday, Russian cargo jets began hauling emergency aid to Serbian refugees. Meanwhile, the Duma - or lower house of parliament - voted to remove economic sanctions on Serb-dominated Yugoslavia and to impose them on Croatia, which last weekend retook most of the territory Serbs had conquered in a six-month war in 1991.

On Friday, President Clinton vetoed a bill from the United States Congress to lift the arms embargo against the Muslim-dominated Bosnians. Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas says that his chamber will attempt to override the president's veto when Congress returns from recess in September.

On Thursday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin urged fellow UN members to lift sanctions on the Serbs, and warned that eventually Russia might lift them unilaterally.

Both the Clinton and the Yeltsin administrations are trying not to break with the other major powers and the United Nations in dealing with the Balkans. Senior diplomats from both countries - Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and American National Security Adviser Anthony Lake - met yesterday at the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi to find common ground.

But both administrations are pressed politically by more populist, nationalistic politicians in the legislatures pushing for unilateral action in defiance of sanctions agreed to in the UN.

Mr. Yeltsin has been trying for the past week to seize a leadership role in mediating the Balkan conflict. Last Monday, he invited both the Croatian and Serbian presidents to Moscow on short notice. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic came, but Croatian President Franjo Tudjman - sensing a hostile, pro-Serb forum - declined.

Now both Yeltsin and Bill Clinton have proposals for bringing Serb, Croat, and Bosnian leaders together at a summit with the leaders of Russia and the major Western powers.

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The vote of the Russian Duma is unlikely to have a practical impact in the former Yugoslavia. First, the bills would have to become law. They were passed while the upper house, the Federation Council, is out of session. Unless the Federation Council calls its own extraordinary session to vote on the bills within two weeks, they will go directly to Yeltsin for his veto or signature.

Should Yeltsin sign the lifting of sanctions from the rump Yugoslavia, the support the Serbs receive will be more symbolic than economic, according to Western and Russian analysts in Moscow. Russia has little to sell except oil, and it has no pipelines to Yugoslavia.

The politics of the move are trickier for Yeltsin. To lift sanctions unilaterally could be dangerous to relations with the West and risk Russia's place in making international decisions on the Balkans.

But to veto the lifting of sanctions could endanger Russia's relations with Belgrade, which Russian leaders see as their best avenue toward peace in the region. Kozyrev told reporters on Saturday that one key to settling the Balkan conflict is to "strengthen the position of right-minded forces" around Milosevic by lifting sanctions.

Russians carry a deep historical identification with the Serbs as fellow Christian Orthodox Slavs. In the past, popular opinion often goaded more reluctant Russian governments into military support of Serbia.

The nationalists and communists, two broad streams of Russian politics, drove the pro-Serb, anti-Croatian bills through the Duma Saturday.

The law levying sanctions on Croatia "to prevent genocide of the Serb people on the territory of the Republic of Croatia," passed after vigorous lobbying by radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

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