bosnia report
New Series No. 9/10 April - July 1999
 
Report from Moscow
by Vlado Vurusic

Today, a month after the initial emotive and vocal reaction by the Russian pub lic and politicians to NATO action against the FRY, when some people were even talking about the outbreak of a Third World War, passions in Moscow are beginn ing to subside. Of the turbulent protests, there remain only the dirty marks on the facade of the US embassy, in front of which Russian `specials' wearing full military dress sweat in the hot spring sun.

`The Russian public has calmed down', Maxim Yusin, editor of the liberal daily Izvestia, tells us, `partly under the impression of the pictures showing the Kosova refugees, but largely because the Russians have realised that the Kosova crisis could lead to their country's isolation, complicate international rela tions, and perhaps even bring them into conflict with the West. The democratic public sobered up after it realised that its pro-Serb and anti-American policy actually works in favour of the Communists.'

Professor Sergei Alexandrovich Markov, head of the Institute for Political Re search, tells us that the Serbian demand for an alliance with Russia actually had the opposite effect from the one expected by the Serbs. The Russians re alised that this could draw them into the war, and that the Serbs anyway remem bered them only after having got into difficulties. A public opinion poll con ducted by Professor Markov's institute shows that the war rhetoric and the na tionalist-Communist pro-Serb propaganda have not won the Russians over to war. Only 3% of those asked supported a Russian intervention on the FRY's behalf, while 7% believed that Russia should not become involved in the Balkan conflict under any circumstances. The majority of Russians do blame chiefly NATO and the USA, but more believe that the Serbs are responsible for the war in Kosova (17%) than that the Albanians are (13%).

Muslim reaction
Professor Markov believes that the strong initial reaction was caused in the first instance by fear for Russia - i.e. that something similar could happen to Russia too - but that when the public realised there would be no conflict be tween Russia and the West, and the West still viewed Russia as an important in ternational factor, it changed its stance. The Russians were also sobered up by the unexpected reaction of the country's Muslim population, which is approxi mately 20 million strong. Muslim politicians took a firm stand. Confronted with the euphoric nationalist mobilization of volunteers to join the battle on the Serb side, they immediately warned that they too would send vÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ olunteers to help the Albanians. The possibility of a war between Russian citizens on the terri tory of a third state caused such consternation that signing up volunteers and dispatching them to Serbia was put off indefinitely.

We spoke of the relations between Muslim and Orthodox citizens with the presi dent of the Council of Muftis of the Russian Federation, Sheik Ravilo Gajnutdin, an ethnic Tartar. The six million Tartars have their own republic within the Russian federation. The mosque and the surrounding buildings are painted green, and at its entrance women discreetly sell sausage made from horsemeat, which is a Tartar speciality. After being frisked by a close-shaven six-foot guard with gold teeth, we were received by Sheik Gajnutdin who had just been talking to the US ambassador to Moscow. The Great Mufti of Moscow believes that the Russian Muslims have for the first time taken up an articulated stance and appeared as an important political factor, whose opinion is being taken very seriously in deed.

`I believe that NATO bears a good deal of responsibility for what is happening to the Kosova Albanians', he told us. `Their analysts should have foreseen that Milosevic would use the opportunity provided by the air strikes to conduct geno cide.' He also added: `We, the Muslims of Russia, are and will be on the side of the Albanians. We have, however, argued against any mobilization of Muslim volunteers organised in response to the policy of the Russian ultranationalists. I have personally argued against it. If Russians and Muslims both sent volun teers, this would mean that ethnic and religious hatred - and later on inevita bly also conflict - would be transmitted to Russia. Those volunteers would re turn from Kosova steeped in war and hatred and bring all that to Russia with un foreseeable consequences. This must be prevented.'

Mufti Gajnutdin, a member of Russia's Council of Peoples - of which there are 110 according to the latest census - believes that an alliance with the FRY would contribute to further cleavages within Russian society. `Russia must not build its alliances on ethnic, confessional and national principles. Our parlia mentarians who today vote for an alliance with Serbia should know that the Serbs remembered Russia only when they got into trouble, and that there are 20 million Muslims in Russia. If such a thing were to happen, who would prevent Muslim politicians from forming alliances with the Muslim world, above all with the Turkic peoples, of whom there are a large number in our neighbourhood. Is this what Russia needs in its present situation? The Russian government and politi cians should ask themselves whether they are not closer to Russian citizens of different ethnic and confessional origin than they are to the Serbs, whose friendship can only discredit us in the eyes of the world. If the Russian Ortho dox population thinks only of itself, Russian Muslims will be forced to turn to the Islamic countries. Russia should build its future on the European tradition of co-existence of various nations and confessions, otherwise there will be a catastrophe.'

Murtaz Rahimov, the president of Bashkiria, a Muslim republic in central Russia, agrees: `Slobodan Milosevic alone is responsible for this Balkan tragedy. It is shameful that Russia should support a politician who conducts genocide against his own citizens. He is now seeking Russian support, but as soon as the war is over he will run away from us. Why should we seek allies who can endanger our Russian homeland?'

Another reason for this reaction, says Professor Markov, is that Vladimir Zhiri novsky's Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) ordered its members to volunteer and then drafted other volunteers into its party membership. In this way Zhirinovsky is militarizing his party, which could bring about a radicalization of Russian political life. A few days ago the Moscow city court banned the activities of the fascist Russian National Unity led by Alaxander Barkashev, aÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ former `spe cial' in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, whose members wear black shirts and high black-leather boots.

A sad atmosphere prevails in the Moscow building of the LDPR youth organisation, which is the main meeting place for the volunteers. A large dirty hall, which we are told was filled with volunteers only a few days ago, is now empty. The floor is strewn with placards that were carried in the demonstrations in front of the American embassy; the walls are covered with photos of Zhirinovsky coupled with his latest anti-American statements; below these a few young men sit at a greasy, dirty table, munching cold pizza and drinking Coca-Cola, while watching an American film made by Jerry Zucker and enthusiastically commenting on jokes at the expense of Saddam Hussein, Zhirinovsky's great friend.

The charge for going off to fight
They tell us that they have come to volunteer for the war in Serbia against `Croats or as they call them Albanians', says twenty-year-old Dima from a vil lage near Moscow. Viktor, who has travelled from the Urals, is disappointed with the reception he has received in Moscow. At first, he says, they refused to ac cept him on health grounds, so he decided to report to the Serbian embassy in Moscow. They received him there, he said, offered him sandwiches and said they were ready to send him to Belgrade to join the army there, but they asked $150 for the visa and another $300 for the journey if they were to organise it. We later learned that the Moscow office of the Serbian firm Karic Brothers is en gaged in recruiting Russian volunteers; this was confirmed by Eduard from Moscow, our third interlocutor, who said he was surprised by their attitude: `It isn't right. We're ready to die and they ask for money.'

Dima said that he had volunteered but nevertheless hoped he would not have to go to war. As we were talking, we were scrutinized with suspicion by young ultrana tionalists who were hurrying along the narrow, claustrophobic corridors carrying files, shouting and cursing each other. Some of them were talking on two mobile telephones simultaneously. In an overcrowded office we spoke to the baby-faced Andrei Alexeivich Manilov, a member of the Duma and the man responsible for the volunteers. He insisted that 70,000 volunteers are ready to go. `We do not send them ourselves but do everything in cooperation with the Yugoslav embassy', he said in a tired voice. `The Yugoslavs have sent us a list of military special ists they need and we try to recruit them.' The representatives of the Yugoslav army have visited the volunteer centres. Manilov believes that `we are dealing with a conspiracy against Orthodoxy, so we have to help the Serbs stop the Islamic threat to Europe.' He even calls Serbia the bulwark of Christianity. He also adds that one has to prevent the USA from ruling the world, since the Americans have never done anything good for the Russians and the Orthodox, but only desire their annihilation. Manilov spoke with difficulty, sighing all the time. He must have had enough of journalists asking the same thing.

He did mention, however, that Kosova was a dress rehearsal for the great show down to come, the one that will mark the 21st century, which is the Chinese problem. He told us that during the past decade or so tens of thousands of Chi nese had settled in Siberia and the Russian Far East. `There exist already purely Chinese villages there and many Russian towns are overflowing with Chi nese. If the inflow of the Chinese is not stopped, there will soon be so many of them that they will demand their own federal unit. This we cannot allow.' At the end of our interview, Manilov without much enthusiasm, yet with the gesture of a fighter for his ideas, showed us a list with several hundred names of what he alleged were Russian volunteers collected in the last two days.

In response to this Izvestia has published a letter from a Russian volunteer who had fought in Bosnia. He wrote: `We who went to ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ the Yugoslav battlefield were for the most part disappointed with the behaviour of the Serbs and became suspi cious of our brothers-in-arms. We were not treated like human beings. The Serbs would send us first to meet the bullets and would not help us. This is a widely shared experience. It often happened that the Serbs would simply watch us Rus sians fight without any desire to help us. They frequently left their positions without telling us. There were times when we had to threaten the Serbs with arms in order to prevent them leaving their positions and running away.' Yuri from St Petersburg concluded by saying that the Russians after spending four days in a trench would only get one day off, whereas the Serbs would spend two days in the trenches, two days in camp and two days resting at home. He said that he did not wish to persuade anyone not to go, but if they had decided to do so they should not trust Serb stories that they would get everything they needed once they got there: `Take a lot of warm clothes, hardwearing shoes and woollen socks, since you will get nothing from the Serbs except, perhaps, a worn out part of a uni form and poor, monotonous food.'

Media and the idea of union
The Russian parliament has accepted the FRY's proposal of union, but the public has reacted to it with contempt. The strongest daily of democratic orientation Izvestia carried articles on its front page titled `Yugoslavia wishes to annex Russia' and `A Brotherly Anschluss'. Its columnist Semion Novoprudsky asked the Communist deputies, who are particular advocates of alliance with Serbia, whether, when NATO bombs Belgrade, they would be protesting against the bombing of a Russian republic; whether they would be speaking out against the destruc tion of Russian Prishtina, or about new refugees from Russian land fleeing into Macedonia. `Let us unite with Yugoslavia', wrote Novoprudsky, `and maybe one should also consider union with North Korea too. Let us not permit the aggressor to take an inch of foreign land. We should also immediately exchange all Russi a's hated dollars for brotherly Yugoslav dinars.'

The weekly Vlast writes in ironic tones about the `advantages' of a union with Yugoslavia, whose economy and political reality, they say, are worse than those of Russia. Playing on the names of the presidents of Russia, Belorussia and Yu goslavia, it suggests that it would be best if the future president of BRYU were called Boris Miloshenko.

Leonid Velehov, editor of the weekly Itogi, which is published in cooperation with Newsweek and owned by the media mogul Gusinsky, writes: `Milosevic is a bad prophet. The Serbs have already paid the highest price for the wars in former Yugoslavia, although they were all waged in the name of their protection. Milosevic has been losing, yet he has survived in power. In my view his secret lies in his ability to provoke the base, atavistic sentiments and instincts of his own people, offering it only a nationalist madness which has thrown it back for several hundred years, erecting around it a high wall with which he has iso lated it from the rest of the civilised world.'

On the other hand the obscure Communist-nationalist weekly Zavtra celebrated Milosevic as a true Slav hero. `Milosevic has united all Russian patriots. The Serb eagle has succeeded where Baburin, Seleznyov, Ampilov and Brakshev [Commu nist and nationalist politicians] have failed. Maybe Russia will be cleansed thanks to Serbia and the great Serb Milosevic. Slobodan, we are with you!. God is in heaven and Russia on earth. To final victory!' The Serb president, of course, could not resist giving the paper an interview. `Russia today must not repeat the mistake made by Josip Vissarionovich Stalin, who trusted Hitler to the last moment', Milosevic told Zavtra. `It must be understood that the United States have no other desire but to subjugate the whole world. This is why the Serbs in this war are defending not only themselves but all the freeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ nations of the world: Russia, China, India, Africa. NATO will die here in Yugoslavia.' This is Milosevic's message to his enthusiastic supporters among Russia's ultranationalists and radical communists.

The exceptionally hot April days have sent politically boiling Moscow to sleep. The Communists will not give up, says Professor Markov, since they are upset that despite their great propaganda they have failed to win the majority of the public as they had hoped. According to his institute's research, there has not been any significant growth of nationalist tendencies, nor any increased desire for political engagement on the part of the Russian Orthodox church. He links this to the fact that the religious leaders of the largest religious communities in Russia - Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism - have made a joint state ment, in which they have condemned both the NATO attacks and `ethnic cleansing', expressed solidarity with all those who are suffering in Yugoslavia, and ended by saying that the internal unity and stability of Russia are more important than anything else.

This article has been translated from Globus (Zagreb), 30 April 1999

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