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THERE is an old Russian saying that if you drink, you die. And if you don’t drink, you die. So it’s better to drink.

If that was the choice facing Russian policy towards last week’s events in Belgrade, the Russian parliament was first to point out that President Vladimir Putin’s endorsement of Kostunica’s election was worse than death.

Was Putin’s action a sign of vacillation and weakness under foreign pressure, as his domestic critics are now claiming? And does the Russian action in conceding to the Yugoslav opposition, headed by Vojislav Kostunica, mean international pressure can also succeed in bringing down other governments close to the Kremlin, such as the Belarus government headed by Alexander Lukashenko?

According to Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the State Duma, who generally tries to stay in line with the Kremlin, there was no justification for Putin to support Kostunica on Friday, let alone join the United States and the Nato powers to encourage an opposition seizure of power in the streets of Belgrade. In the streets, Seleznyov said, there was nothing but a ”crowd high on alcohol and drugs.”

Alexander Shabanov, a senior Communist Party deputy, told the Athens News on Friday “the present revolt cannot last long. The assault on the building of the parliament is a crime. A group of warmed-up people on the Belgrade streets is hard to reason with.”

Shabanov was speaking after Putin had authorised the despatch of foreign minister Igor Ivanov to Belgrade on Friday. By then it was already known that Ivanov was carrying a message from Putin to Kostunica congratulating him on “his victory in the presidential election”.

In the West, that was immediately interpreted as a signal the Kremlin had caved in, and was abandoning President Slobodan Milosevic to his fate. Noone attended Ivanov’s later clarification. “I did not congratulate Mr Kostunica as president,” Ivanov said, “but congratulated him on his success, on his victory, in the elections.” Was there any practical difference, Ivanov’s critics in the Duma thundered? By the time Ivanov had returned to Moscow, Milosevic had met Kostunica, and in the presence of the Yugoslav army chief, confirmed the transfer of power.

“The thing that happened today I cannot comment on in any other way than by using obscene language,” Alexei Mitrofanov told the Athens News. Mitrofanov, a former foreign ministry official, is a member of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s small party in parliament, and a strong nationalist. He attacked Ivanov for bowing to Nato pressure: “Once again, Russia exercises the role of the advocate for Western countries, Germany first of all. It is the same role we played with German reunification. What did we receive from that – thanks, plus two kopecks of credit.”

According to Mitrofanov, “Russia needed Milosevic. The situation was still recoverable. We still could get some guarantees. But now Russia’s acknowledgement of Kostunica means Milosevic has lost his game.”

Mitrofanov was one of the first deputies among the Duma nationalists to break with Putin.

The Communists remained convinced that Ivanov was acting on clear Kremlin instructions; that the policy of supporting constitutional rule in Yugoslavia meant support for Milosevic, at least until after another round of voting; and finally, that there was no split between the foreign ministry, the Kremlin Security Council which acts as Putin’s personal policy staff, or the General Staff.

Putin’s invitation to Moscow for both Milosevic and Kostunica, repeated after Putin returned to Moscow from a trip to India, seemed to the Duma nationalists to mean the Kremlin was sticking to Milosevic.

“President Putin personally supervises foreign relations,” said a spokesman for Dmitri Rogozin, the non-communist chairman of the Duma International Relations Committee, and a well-known nationalist. Rogozin had publicly backed Russian support for Milosevic as the constitutional head of state in Yugoslavia. “We can’t comment on the Kremlin’s opinion of the situation,” his spokesman told the Athens News. Rogozin did emphasize there was no support in parliament for a Russian offer of exile for Milosevic. But Rogozin also believed there was no need for the offer, so long as the Kremlin did not abandon Milosevic.

The Communists were equally adamant on this point. “The parliamentary statement on the situation in Yugoslavia supports President Putin’s position. A coup is a coup,” Shabanov told the Athens News late Friday afternoon. The Communists saw no reason why Milosevic should not be able to reestablish himself; an d every reason why Putin should not do nothing to side with Nato against him.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former member of the Duma International Relations Committee, who runs a political consultancy that is close to the Kremlin, told the Athens News he did not see any evidence of a split among Russian policymakers between those favouring Milosevic, and those for Kostunica.

The key issue for Putin and his staff, according to Nikovov, was “how Milosevic estimates his chances.”

That is what Putin despatched his foreign minister to Belgrade to find out. While the West was focusing on Ivanov’s meeting with Kostunica, the meeting that followed between Ivanov and Milosevic was the decisive one.

Russian sources in Moscow believe Milosevic had made his decision to give up the presidency, but remain in the Yugoslav parliament, before Ivanov arrived. It is possible Milosevic had already signalled his intention, and Ivanov was despatched to make sure.

Russian sources do not credit Russian pressure as forcing Milosevic, because they do not believe Milosevic has trusted the Kremlin since former President Boris Yeltsin and former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin abandoned him during last year’s Nato bombing campaign.

Yeltsin’s actions at that time launched Putin’s rise to power, by triggering a General Staff rebellion against his authority. The first manifestation was the Russian military occupation of Pristina airport on June 11, 1999. Yeltsin became so fearful over the next several weeks, he decided he could not trust his then prime minister, Sergei Stepashin. Putin, the head of the Federal Security Service, replaced Stepashin in August.

While pro-American newspapers in Moscow are now reporting there was a split between the Security Council, favouring Milosevic’s resistance, and the foreign ministry, favouring Nato, the real choice in Russian policy was already made. Milosevic had made it for them.

Russians acknowledge that after last year’s events, Milosevic had no reason to trust Russian promises. The Russian assessment was there was little they could do to assure their interest in Yugoslavia so long as Milosevic hung on to power; little they could do if he relinqished it; and nothing they could to persuade him in one direction or another.

Was this a policy of “foolishness and betrayal”, as Mitrofanov now says? The Kremlin will not argue the point in public. The game – Milosevic told the Kremlin – isn’t exactly over. For Russia’s reasons, not Nato’s, Putin agreed. Preserving the anti-western opposition in Yugoslavia, after Milosevic steps down, is the main Russian reason now.

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