Turmoil May Hamper Kosovo Mediation
By Steven Mufson and John F. Harris
Strobe Talbott, left, and Viktor Chernomyrdin talk to reporters Wednesday in Moscow.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page A22
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott went to Moscow to resolve disputes papered over in earlier U.S.-Russian talks on Kosovo – only to find a Russian government in shreds.
Clinton administration officials said publicly yesterday that Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin can continue to play a mediator's role to help settle the war in Yugoslavia even while his own government is in the middle of political civil war. But privately they expressed worry whether the Russian government crisis might hobble Chernomyrdin's mission as go-between for NATO and the Yugoslav government in Belgrade.
Highlighting those concerns were the minimal progress made in Talbott's talks yesterday and a threat issued by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. After sacking Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Yeltsin said Moscow would end its mediation efforts on Kosovo if NATO does not heed Russia's views.
"Yeltsin warned that Russia would withdraw from cooperation in negotiations if its proposals and mediation efforts for the Kosovo conflict were ignored," a Kremlin spokesman said after the president held a meeting of his advisory Security Council. A Kremlin spokeswoman also quoted Yeltsin as saying: "Our calls, our repeated suggestions clearly are not reaching somebody."
Igor Ivanov, who was technically fired early in the day but remained acting foreign minister, sounded equally discouraged, saying Russia is alarmed by NATO's escalation of the bombing. "If NATO military leadership pursues this course, all efforts aimed at seeking a political settlement might become futile," Ivanov said.
That would have grave consequences for diplomatic efforts to end the war, because the United States and its North Atlantic allies have pinned many of their hopes for a negotiated settlement on Russia. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, for instance, has referred to a "double magnet" strategy, drawing Russia closer to NATO while Chernomyrdin draws President Slobodan Milosevic closer to Russia.
For the moment, it remained unclear whether either part of that strategy would work. Talbott met for two hours with Chernomyrdin and for half an hour one-on-one with Ivanov. After meeting with Chernomyrdin, Talbott told reporters, "We have many differences."
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "There are still wide gaps between Russia and the United States on the key questions of the composition of the international security force, on the timetable and verification of the withdrawal of Serb forces."
Talbott flew on to Helsinki to meet with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, appointed Tuesday as the European Union's special Kosovo envoy. Talbott left behind two working groups, one on military issues, one on the civilian side. Chernomyrdin, who wants Ahtisaari's assistance, will also fly to Helsinki, according to a Moscow television newscast. Talbott is scheduled to fly back to Moscow today for more talks.
"The uncertainties in Russia are real," said one U.S. official.
But the main news in Moscow was domestic turmoil. Yeltsin's dismissal of Primakov came as the physically enfeebled president faces the threat of impeachment from the Duma and criticism of Russia's mediation role in Kosovo.
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart called Primakov's firing "a matter of internal Russian politics" on which Washington should not comment.
Privately, however, officials said the turmoil in Moscow is of acute concern. One senior administration official closely involved in Russia policy said the moves cast "kind of a dark cloud" on hopes that Russia can successfully mediate an end to the war in Yugoslavia. This official said U.S. intelligence predicted the firings; even so, he said Yeltsin is engaged in a "risky endeavor" that "may make more likely" his impeachment.
Chernomyrdin serves at the pleasure of Yeltsin. Any moves that leave Yeltsin weakened could reduce his flexibility for dealmaking on the Kosovo front.
"There's no doubt they're going to be a less focused player on the international front, and a less reliable partner in [Kosovo] diplomacy," said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University expert on Russia. "Everything turns internally now."
"Yeltsin can still deploy forces [for a Kosovo peacekeeping mission] and he can still send Cherno all over the world," said one senior administration official. "But the uncertainties in Russia are real."
Some U.S. officials said it is at least conceivable that Yeltsin's gambit could in the end strengthen his position over Russian nationalists in the parliament, and thus give him more flexibility to play the dealmaker in Kosovo. In the interim, however, it is likely Russia will continue to push positions at odds with the Clinton administration – such as a demand that there be a bombing pause while diplomacy is underway.
"This could delay things," said one senior administration official. "Until the political situation stabilizes, they're probably going to have to hold on to their [public] positions for domestic [political] reasons."
Officials in Moscow, while initially eager to mediate between NATO and Milosevic to regain an international role and rebuild international stature, also sounded disheartened.
"Of course Russia will not be satisfied with the role of a technical courier who would carry the suggestions or even ultimatums from one side to another," said Vladimir Putin, secretary of Russia's Security Council. In that case, he said, "we will not take part in this work at all."
"I don't see any change in the Russian position," Rubin said in Washington, "namely that they're prepared to work with us on the conditions for the suspension of the bombing and a peaceful resolution of this even as they disagree with us on whether the bombing should have ever started or therefore should be continued."
He denied that NATO is ignoring Russia's views. "We're spending extraordinary effort in working on them and trying to achieve a diplomatic solution, so long as, and only if, it is based on NATO's unchanging and unchangeable five conditions," Rubin said.
Correspondent Sharon LaFraniere in Moscow contributed to this report.
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