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Balkans Special Report

  Russian Leader Cancels Trip in Protest

Russia
Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov waves on his arrival in Shannon, Ireland, on Tuesday. (AP Photo)
By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 1999; Page A22

It was 9:30 a.m. in Washington when Vice President Gore got a telephone call from Shannon, Ireland, the refueling point for a plane carrying Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov from Moscow to Washington.

Primakov wanted to know about U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke's talks in Belgrade with the Yugoslav leader, President Slobodan Milosevic. Any progress? Any hope of reaching a deal on Kosovo that would avert NATO airstrikes? Not yet, Primakov was told. It doesn't look good.

We know you don't want to be here if NATO is bombing Serbia, so perhaps you should hold there in Ireland in case of a last-minute breakthrough. No, Primakov said, according to accounts by U.S. officials who paraphrased the conversation, I'm going to take off. But if you tell me there's no hope of a diplomatic solution, I'll turn around and go home.

Three hours later, Primakov did just that, scrapping a long-scheduled round of high-level economic and security talks here. After Gore called back to say the United States and its allies had concluded bombing was the only alternative left, Primakov ordered his crew to turn the plane around in mid-flight over the Atlantic and went back to Moscow, dramatizing Russia's objections.

Senior Clinton administration officials expressed hope, if not confidence, that the split over the Kosovo bombing will not undermine U.S.-Russian cooperation on other issues. They acknowledged the risk of deeper estrangement with Russia, but said Milosevic's campaign of repression in Kosovo left them no alternative. One encouraging signal, they said, was that other members of the Russian delegation, who had arrived here earlier, stayed in Washington and will continue some work on the original agenda.

U.S. and Russian officials described 24 hours of cliff-hanging telephone calls and decisions made on the fly as Primakov and other high-ranking Russians sought news of Holbrooke's mission, hoping that some hint of success would clear the way for the prime minister to continue his journey. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott got one such call on his cell phone Monday night during a White House dinner meeting to discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary NATO summit, and another at home yesterday at 3 a.m., State Department officials said.

Russian officials stressed to Gore, Primakov's official host, and to other senior U.S. officials that Primakov would not come if bombing were under way, and that he would leave in protest if airstrikes began while he was here.

"Nobody is thrilled about this, but we figured it's better to postpone than to have the trip blow up over the bombing," a senior official said. This official stressed that President Clinton and the NATO allies had made no decision as of last evening when to begin the air campaign, but he said Primakov went home because U.S. officials told him plainly that they saw no hope of averting it.

Primakov's decision to call off his trip dramatized a fundamental disagreement that has split Moscow and Washington for months, even as diplomats from both countries worked together in an effort to negotiate a peace agreement. The Russians joined the United States in demanding that Milosevic accept a Western-drafted peace plan, but never acquiesced to backing up the demand with military action.

When Holbrooke left Belgrade with no deal, Washington's conclusion was that force was inevitable, but Russia's was that it reinforced the need for more diplomacy and that force would only worsen the grim situation in Kosovo, officials said.

Some administration officials argued that any bombing should be postponed until Saturday, giving Primakov time to complete his visit and leave the country, but Clinton and his advisers rejected that option because the fighting in Kosovo required immediate action, senior officials said.

"We know that Russia does not support the use of military force in Kosovo, but that doesn't mean that it's not the right thing to do," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.

"We think we will weather this difference, as we have weathered other differences similar to it," Rubin added. This was an apparent reference to Iraq, which the United States bombed over Russian objections with little apparent detriment to cooperation on other issues.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spoke by telephone last night to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, saying that the two countries should "agree to disagree" about Kosovo while continuing to cooperate on other issues, Rubin said.

In the short run, Primakov apparently had little to lose by postponing his business here especially because he was not going to get the agreement he is seeking with the International Monetary Fund for an additional $4.2 billion cash infusion into Russia's staggering economy and he might have had more to lose at home if he stayed here while allied planes struck, officials and diplomats said.

Primakov, who is effectively running Russia because of the illness of President Boris Yeltsin, has insisted he will not be a candidate in Russia's presidential election next year. But many analysts here and in Moscow think otherwise.

Opposition to military action against Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, is broad and deep in Russia, the Serbs' traditional ally. A dramatic gesture of opposition to Western military action against Serbia is likely to be a political plus for Primakov.

Correspondent David Hoffman in Moscow contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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