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Kosovo war splits ex-Soviet states over allegiances

Airstrikes prompt calls for aid to Serbs from some, closer NATO ties inothers.

It took just two weeks of NATO airstrikes to achieve what Russia has desired for seven years: to woo Ukraine back into its bearish arms.

Since the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991, East and West madly courted the buffer country that so strategically borders Russia to the East and Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the West.

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To gain the advantage, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Washington poured in money to the point that Ukraine is among the top recipients of US assistance.

But Kiev's traditional suspicion of Moscow has mostly evaporated with the bombing of fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

It is sidling closer to Russia along the deep fault line that emerged among the Soviet Union's 15 former states.

"The US never really had Ukraine," says Vadim Kortunov, president of the Russian Scientific Foundation, a research center in Moscow. "And now the positions of Ukraine and Russia are closer than before."

Assistance to Serbs?

Where the 15 countries stand on Yugoslavia has become of increased importance in recent days, amid speculation that NATO may decide to send ground troops to Kosovo.

Then, Russia would most likely feel obliged to supply advisers or even equipment to the Serbs.

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Siding with NATO

On a tally sheet, however, NATO so far is ahead in winning former Soviet hearts and minds.

The three Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - are more eager than ever to join the military alliance, although they are keeping quiet in hope that the Russian giant next door doesn't notice.

A summit in Moscow last Friday of the other 12 former Soviet countries, now the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), showed just how loose that alliance is. The only mutual ground was a joint appeal for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Kosovo.

But that's where the unity ends.

Russia can only hope for complete backing from fellow Slav-dominated Belarus, with whom Moscow has been moving toward closer unity. Belarus has taken the hardest line of all, calling for direct military assistance to the Serbs.

Russia could expect support too from tiny Muslim-dominated Tajikistan, where it has been aiding the secular government in a civil war against mainly Islamist insurgents.

However, a contrarian position has been embraced by Azerbaijan and Georgia, which long ago stopped believing that Russia was a guarantor of their territorial integrity.

Azerbaijan remains locked in a bitter territorial dispute with neighboring Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Georgia is trying to cope with internal separatist movements.

The duo, along with Uzbekistan have dropped out of the CIS security cooperation treaty.

Moreover, Azerbaijan has offered to send troops to NATO, while Georgian officials say President Eduard Shevardnadze will attend the alliance's jubilee summit later this month to show his country's support.

But the allegiance of Ukraine's citizens is arguably more valuable, because of its location.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma conferred with his Rus-sian counterpart Boris Yeltsin last week in Moscow to coordinate positions on Yugoslavia.

"[Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kuchma] synchronized their watches concerning their steps," Sergei Prikhodko, deputy Russian presidential chief of staff, told reporters.

Both men are trying to act as go-betweens for NATO and Yugoslavia while resisting nationalist calls at home to get militarily involved in the conflict. Both countries are counting on IMF and other foreign money to avoid economic disaster.

Eye to elections

Kuchma is trying to keep relations good with NATO, leaving the door open to joining, while responding to grass-roots support for the Serbs. The pressure is intense, with general elections looming in October.

As in Russia, Yugoslavia has become a campaign issue on which the communist-led opposition is trying to capitalize - and this concerns Washington.

"The Americans want to prevent Ukraine's alliance with Russia," says Alexander Vakhrameyev, an analyst with the Center for Ethnic, Political, and Regional Research in Moscow. "Ukraine isn't interesting for any other reason."

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