The arrest of General Ratko Mladic and his extradition to the International Tribunal in The Hague have produced precious little reaction from Moscow. Apart from a Foreign Ministry statement expressing hope that the Bosnian Serb commander will be given a fair trial, there was hardly anything else. This stands as a huge contrast to the wave of emotion that events in the Balkans, and especially in and around Serbia, produced in the 1990s or even five years ago, when Slobodan Milosevic died in prison.
Having been a diplomatic correspondent for Izvestia in the 1990s, I remember very well the heated debate in Russia regarding wars in former Yugoslavia. Izvestia at the time was one of the media broadly supportive of President Boris Yeltsin’s foreign policy line and came under constant attacks from the nationalist politicians and publications for striking a sceptical tone on Milosevic’s policies and reporting the views of other sides in the conflict. I remember a piece in Zavtra (Tomorrow), the nationalists’ main mouthpiece, calling Izvestia journalists “sworn enemies” of the Russian and Serbian peoples.
The “Slav brotherhood” slogan so tragically misused before was resuscitated by the Communists and nationalists in Russia in order to demand that official Moscow support the Milosevic regime.
Evident contradictions did not bother them. For example, there remains the fact that the Croats as well as Bosnian Muslims were also Slavs who differed in their religious affiliation. The same people who would bemoan the demise of the Romanov monarchy (a singularly lamentable event indeed), closed their eyes to the fact that it was Serbia’s reckless behavior that pushed Russia into the war that ended with the Bolshevik coup. The Serbs, I wrote then, would always invoke historical ties with Russia when they needed something from her, and Milosevic was no exception. That is not to say that other sides in the Yugoslav wars were blameless – far from that. The Croats, Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims committed horrible crimes, too. Sometimes I thought that all these peoples were mad and unreasonable in their own ways.
However Moscow’s insistence on playing an international advocate to pariahs like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic or the Kim dynasty in North Korea always baffled me. Their desire to use Russia without giving anything in return was blatantly obvious. Milosevic was a prime example of such behavior. Though he was also a brilliant tactician, he was a frightfully bad strategist. Having watched the 1990s negotiations over Kosovo, I am positive that he could have partitioned it and retained the Serb-populated areas for Serbia if he had shown a bit more realism and a little less populism and arrogance. I still ask myself: “How could Moscow repeatedly fall for his rhetoric?”
I think for most Russians the story of the former Yugoslavia mirrored that of the Soviet Union, and the fate of the Serbs was equated with that of themselves – a mainstay of a multiethnic imperial state supposedly betrayed by the ungrateful “colonies.” It was less to do with Slav or Orthodox solidarity than with the desire to avenge the West, albeit on a small scale, for the defeat in the Cold War, to strike a position different from the United States and Europe even if it meant backing the losing dictator and disregarding Russia’s other interests.
I was always certain that given a chance, the Serbs would turn to the West. Now we see that it turned out exactly so. President Boris Tadic and his team are pushing for Serbia’s rapid accession to the EU and NATO, as well as reconciliation with neighbors. Belgrade’s relations with Croatia, for example, have completely normalized. Even the Kosovo question seems to be a less acute pain for Serbia these days.
Russia has returned to the Balkans not as a pre-WWI power broker, but as a supplier of energy, tourists and property buyers. The 1990s obsession with Serbia and the Serbs is over. It turned into a warm but not at all hysterical sympathy and quest for mutual interest. The Russians, just like the Serbs, are looking for a new identity in this new world. It might be that both peoples will learn from their intertwined experiences and put these lessons to good use.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.