Russia's Policy On Kosovo: Why the Stalemate?

How can one explain Russia's refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence in the Security Council of the UN? The most widespread Western interpretation of this stand is the following: Russia has always been in cahoots with Serbia, helping the country to realize its "imperial" ambitions in the Balkans. The reasons? Religious affinity, real politics, fraternity of "undemocratic" regimes.

Like any simplification, this version, however, overlooks certain historic facts which just don't fit it. Strangely, during the greater part of their history, the Russian and Serb states were rivals rather than allies. This, however, did not prevent societies of both countries from fraternizing and helping each other in the tragic moments of both countries' histories. Sometimes these communications were supported by the governments, but more often they weren't. Russian-Serb friendship was mostly a matter of "civil society." Soviet foreign policy, especially during Stalinism, could easily ignore this tradition. Modern Russian foreign policy can't ignore it.

Here are some facts about the "friendship" of the states. Soon after gaining independence from Turkey in 1878 as a result of the Russian-Turkish war, Serbia started ignoring the interests of its liberator, waging wars on Russia's ally Bulgaria despite the latter's being populated by Orthodox Christian brethren. Relations improved only after the annexation by Austria in 1908 of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only to lead Russia and Serbia into World War I, which Serb-Austrian animosity helped ignite. After the Bolshevist revolution of 1917 and the founding of the Yugoslav state in 1918, this new state conducted an openly anti-Soviet policy. The Soviet Union and the Communist International responded in kind, advocating Croatian, Albanian and Slovenian independence even more ardently than NATO did in the 1990s. Diplomatic relations were established only in 1940 and the treaty on friendship and non-aggression was signed on April 5, 1941, one day before Hitler's invasion of Yugoslavia. The war against Hitler reconciled the countries, but the honeymoon between Yugoslavia's new strongman Josip Broz Tito and Stalin was short, leading to a bad quarrel in 1948 when Stalin called Tito "a traitor and a spy." At the time the Stalinist Albanian dictator Enver Hoca made Stalin the suggestion of helping him to annex Kosovo, i.e. playing the same role NATO played in 1999.

Despite the reestablishment of relations under Khrushchev in 1955, Belgrade continued to keep Moscow at an arm's length until Tito's death in 1980. A short-lived liberalization known as "Zagreb spring" of 1971 led to fears of Yugoslavia's becoming another victim of "Brezhnev's doctrine," when the Soviet leader, fresh from crushing the Prague Spring in 1968 (a time of political liberalization), suggested a need for help in a phone conversation with Tito. The mutual hopes and disillusionments of Russian-Serb relations during the 1990s are also fresh in memory.

But besides politics, there was also people's diplomacy, which somehow never failed, unlike the official one. There were hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees who settled in Yugoslavia in 1918-1921 fleeing the civil war in Russia. The attitude to them was so good it was one of the reasons of the Soviet authorities' hostile attitude to Yugoslavia until the World War II.

There were thousands of Russian volunteers who went to fight for Serbia in the end of the nineteenth century and there were convoys of food during the NATO bombardment of downtown Belgrade in 1999. There is no need to remind the reader that in 1999 Russia was in poor shape economically, but there were no voices questioning the necessity of humanitarian aid to Serbs. Moreover, opposition to NATO's war was the only cause since 1991 which managed to unite all of Russia's political forces. Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not exaggerate in his recent interview to Der Spiegel magazine when he called the war against Yugoslavia one of the main sources of "a tragic disappointment" of Russians in the West's policies.

All of this one should bear in mind before accusing Russia's diplomats of dragging their feet on the issue of Kosovo's independence or calling on president Putin to stop making parallels between the unrecognized state of Kosovo. Paraphrasing a recent saying by the deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov, one may say that a totalitarian state can afford not having any ideology or sentiments in its foreign policy. A democratic state just can't afford it.

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