New Western Russia’s Greatness and the Balkans

Thus the reunion with Europe in deciding the fates of nations in the Balkans through diplomatic interactions was seen as that type of great power practice that the New Western Russia envisaged for its country. This idea was extremely popular in the broader circles of liberal intellectuals. They creatively used some elements of Soviet discourse to claim authority for this approach. In 1992, one of the most popular Russian playwrights, Mark Zakharov, who had never been particularly interested or active in foreign policy analysis, nonetheless published a long article on Russian foreign policy in the Balkans. The article became an interesting example of the evolving discourse. When commenting on Russia and the beginning of WWI in the Balkans, Zakharov argued that Russia had not sought a military conflict in 1914 because of the memory of the Crimean campaign (wasted Self-Sacrifice in the Black Sea region). Instead it had pursued a policy of fast economic modernisation reaching a second place in economic growth (European pattern of development).

In the framework of this discourse, Zakharov described Russia in 1914 as an exceptionally peaceful power, which had only one wish: even at the price of humiliation of Russia’s Powerhood, St Petersburg sought to maintain the sovereignty of fraternal Slavic Serbia so as to preserve the gains of the Balkan wars of liberation. According to Zakharov, “the Russian Emperor and his foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, did not hide their readiness for any compromise and offered to submit the Austria-Serb conflict to an examination by The Hague Tribunal” (a modern European way of dealing with international crises):

But Germany and her collapsing ally [the Austro-Hungarian Empire] were destined to humiliate the Great Empire and to advance some exorbitant claims for the Balkans, the Black Sea Straights, the Black Sea, Constantinople, Turkey and Iran. Russia was the object of unmotivated aggression...11

The fact that Zakharov described Russia’s attitude in the negotiations between St Petersburg and Berlin over the Serbia-Austria conflict as evidence of the “humility of the Russian power” implies that Russia would not normally have chosen not to assert its greatness in seeking compromise on the Balkans. Instead Russia sacrificed its pride and glory and displayed humility for the sake of compromise rather than engage in war. Drawing on historical narratives of this kind and creatively using the idea of self-sacrifice, New Western Russia depicted its own road to Greatness for Russia—securing its place in the negotiations with other great powers to change the fates of nations in the Balkans. In pursuit of this type of greatness, representatives of the New Western Russia tried to remove all the romantic references and to decouple all links between Russia and the “suppressed nations of the Balkans”. President B. Yeltsin made a significant effort to discard the Soviet element of Russia’s Great Power identity—the idea that Russia would at any cost seek to save the suppressed nations of the Balkans.12 To de-construct the Russian Balkan messianic element, Yeltsin went on to neutralise Yugoslavia as Russia’s Alter Ego. When speaking about Yugoslavia, Yeltsin took an approach of pejorative mirroring, which echoed some parts of the “Barbaric Balkan” discourse about Yugoslavia articulated by Western media and politicians.13 Although acknowledging that the country had been modelled on the Soviet Union, Yeltsin described Yugoslavia as “a bucket of historic problems with the entire ‘bunch’ of ethnic groups and nations” (vedro istoricheskih problem s tselym buketom natsii). Tito deserved only a brief condescending mention as a “pink” dictator and was compared to Franco under whose dictatorship Spain had seemingly blossomed.14 Izvestia deconstructed the myth of Yugoslavia, printing several critiques, for example, of the concept of selfmanagement of Yugoslav enterprises.15

There was no praise of Serbian self-sacrifice or Serbian insight to which Gorbachev had referred to earlier. On the contrary, Yeltsin followed the lines of the Balkanist discourse and presented the conflict in Yugoslavia as the inevitable and natural historic process in conformity with the Soviet version of social reality. Commenting on Tito’s national policy, Yeltsin stressed that “Tito had failed to take into account the growing maturing among the peoples of Yugoslavia. Russia’s supremacy over the Balkans was constructed by comparing Yugoslav events to a chain reaction,16 which was launched after the developments in the Soviet Union and immediately set the country ablaze”.17 The supremacy of Russia over Yugoslavia was also established through implicitly pointing to the fact that unlike Yugoslavia, Russia managed to maintain peace and find solutions through political means.

Having attributed essentialist barbaric features to Serbia and Yugoslavia, with their proneness to conflict being a part of the Balkan discourse, Yeltsin targeted another important, and the most policyrelevant, element of the messianic self-sacrifice of Soviet Greatness— the idea that the True Russia should come and save the suppressed small nations of the Balkans. He directly attacked this messianic idea by saying that it is a sin to blackmail a government into an aggressive foreign policy by evoking the slogan that the “the little ones are bullied”.18 Yeltsin thus tried to deconstruct Soviet messianism in several ways. First, using the linguistic device of paraphrasing the opposition rhetoric into a childish statement, Yeltsin downgraded the Panslavist claims of the opposition into infantile behaviour and thereby tried to undermine the idea of the worthiness of self-sacrifice and conflictual engagement with other great powers.

At the same time, Yeltsin did not fully discard Russia’s great power role. He wanted to get rid of its messianic and militant element. He stressed Russia’s unique role in deciding the fates of Yugoslav nations by depicting Serbs as people in an extreme situation, who could not actually count on anybody else but on Yeltsin and Kozyrev. Portraying the Serbs in such an extreme predicament made Russia’s mediation and support of international law, as advocated by Yeltsin and Kozyrev, look like a crucial factor in saving Serbs and changing their fates.19 Drawing on this, Yeltsin now offered a more balanced and mature alternative approach and offered the Russian public “the second layer of the Yugoslav problem, which was deeper and more important for Russia. It is Russia’s relations with the great powers” .20 The quotation is the first explicit evidence of the primacy of the practical elements of Russia’s great power identity over representations. What mattered was Russia’s ability to change the fates of nations and not compassion towards Russia’s Alter Ego. More of those were to follow. Several months later, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Envoy to the Balkans, made it explicitly clear that Moscow valued its cooperation with the West more highly than the map of Bosnia.21 Nevertheless, Russian diplomats and Yeltsin himself insisted on an equal partnership where Russia would be neither submissive to nor guided by Western powers.

In dealing with the inter-ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, Russia’s great power narrative faced limitations caused by the behaviour of those nations whom Russia was supposed to save. Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade, instead of gratefully accepting Moscow’s protection, repeatedly used Russia’s mediation and arranged ceasefires only to gain time and territory. In other situations, Serbs often ignored the advice of Russian diplomats and displayed non-cooperative behaviour or, even worse, preferred to seal separate deals with Western diplomats. Such an attitude undermined Russia’s ability to deliver in the Balkans and, consequently, cast doubts on its claims for great Powerhood. In these situations, Russia faced an obvious dilemma: to remain committed to supporting Serbs and lose credibility as a significant player among the great Western powers or to join these powers in condemnation of Serbs. Anticipating the scenario of losing its credibility among the Western powers, Russian diplomacy aligned with the West in toughening sanctions against Serbia. The great power habitus—changing the fates of nations—played a more important role than representations of the suppressed nations of the Balkans and Russia’s duty to save them. Driven by the great power habitus, Russian policy-makers and diplomats aligned with the West in toughening sanctions against Serbia. To counter any pro-Serb sentiment, Russian diplomacy worked hard to enhance the “Barbaric Balkan” representation of Serbs. Having constructed a sufficiently negative image of the Serbs, Russian diplomacy could then justify Russia’s compliance with Western measures or deals. In May 1992, Russia voted for the UNSCR 757 and imposed sanctions on Yugoslavia. Moscow did not hide the fact that the main reasons for its vote in favour of the sanctions was that Belgrade had not listened to its advice and had not carried out the demands of the international community. Therefore, voting for these sanctions Russia was carrying out its responsibility as great power to uphold international order.22

As the conflict in Bosnia escalated, Russia repeatedly demonstrated that it would stick to this modus operandi and intensified its construction of Serbs as the Balkan Barbarians. The same logic was in play during the discussion of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP) in 1993. When the Serbs rejected the VOPP, Izvestia attributed the failure to the inability of the Balkan nations to find any negotiated solution. It repeatedly used the discourse and terminology of Barbarian Balkan in its articles, calling Bosnian Serbs and Serbs of Serbia soplemenniki “tribesmen”23 and asserting that the Balkans would always remain a place where promises were easily given and broken and where people would sacrifice their lives rather than give up their land.24 A year later, in 1994, when Bosnian Serbs took the UN peace-keepers around Gorazde hostage, Russia’s envoy Churkin, infuriated by the Bosnian Serbs’ lies, declared that: “They must understand that in Russia they are dealing with a great power, not a banana republic. Russia should decide whether a group of extremists can be allowed to use a great country’s policy to achieve its own aims”.25 Even the Russian President, although speaking in softer terms, did not hesitate to criticise the Bosnian Serbs. It was only when Milosevic distanced himself from them and displayed more cooperative behaviour that Moscow gave its tacit approval to punishing Karadzic and Mladic as the unreasonable nationalist leaders of Bosnian Serbs, contrasting them to the more civilised and European Belgrade.26

Although during Dayton negotiations over the settlement in Bosnia Russia played only minor role and could not secure support for what Bosnian Serbs were fighting for, Russian liberal diplomacy sided with Milosevic against Karadzic and Mladic in order to put an end to Bosnian drama. Despite factual loss of Bosnian Serbs, Russian liberals were nevertheless extremely pleased by the subsequent Russian-Western cooperation in the country. NATO had negotiated with Russia and had set up a joint team, with Russia readily joining in the collaboration; it confirmed that specific practices in the exercise of power, in this case, interaction with the West in defining/changing the fates of nations in barbaric zones, were important for Russia’s identity. Even Russian commanders, who were normally exponents of a more radical Soviet Greatness discourse and who would normally see Serbs as a traditional Russian ally, unexpectedly praised the cooperation between Russia and NATO in IFOR/SFOR. Commenting on the joint operations, they repeated the same phrase that “Russian and NATO peace-keepers were united in accomplishing their tasks that they were not merely collaborating, but that they were acting as one in Bosnia”.27

Although it might seem that Russian foreign policy in the Kosovo crisis was of a different order, it was in many ways a continuation of Russia’s quest to play role in deciding the fates of the Balkan nations together with other great powers. As long as Kosovo remained out of sight in the EU and US discussions, in the years 1997-1998 Izvestia paid much less attention to developments in Kosovo and Moscow did not pursue an active foreign policy in the Balkans. But once the question of Kosovo reappeared on the US and EU foreign policy agenda, both Russian policymakers and Izvestia started to pay more attention. This began to reactivate Russia’s great power habitus, which demanded that Russia should take a co-equal part in changing the fate of nations in the Balkans. Trying to engage in cooperative practices with the West in the Balkan region, the Russian President linked the NATO operation in Kosovo with crucial issues of international security. In particular, Boris Yeltsin asked his US counterpart, Bill Clinton, to cancel the operation against the FRY for the sake of future security in Europe and for the benefit of Russia-US relations and future nuclear stability. In asserting that Russia and the US were bigger and more intelligent than other countries involved in the mediation, he tried to put the two countries on the same level and was prepared to trade some material capabilities for a place at the table where the fate of a Balkan nation was being decided.28 Such hints to important questions of international security and trying to socialise the US into a cooperative attitude show the importance that the joint conflict resolution with the West had for Russia.

Initially, the Russian MFA tried to resolve the Kosovo issue through traditional multilateral conferences and diplomacy. After the failure of negotiations in Rambouillet, Russian diplomats tried to use shuttle diplomacy to mediate the crisis. When Milosevic refused any concessions, thus giving NATO an excuse for intervention, Yeltsin found himself equally frustrated by Washington and by Belgrade. Driven by the need to secure Russia’s place in deciding the fate of Serbia, Russian diplomacy sought to exert pressure on both Washington and Belgrade, but eventually chose to sacrifice Milosevic as an easier target. To rationalise this behaviour, Russian policy-makers boosted the discourse of Balkanisation against the Serbs. Yeltsin equated Milosevic with an unprincipled and cynical politician who threw his country into warr to remove all his domestic opponents and enemies from the political stage.29 Conservative/Centrist Russian Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov described Milosevic as incompetent, and the former liberal Premier and Yeltsin’s personal envoy to the Balkans, Viktor Chernomyrdin, described him as stubborn and shortsighted. No matter what ideology they professed all senior Russian policy-makers were prepared to sacrifice Serbs for the sake of participation in great power politics.

Even Russia’s military moves aimed not at supporting Belgrade or preventing NATO operations, but on securing its position in the negotiation process. On the eve of NATO military exercises in the Balkans, Russia sent 30 paratroopers to take part in the manoeuvres, even though Russia had recalled General V. Zavarzin, its envoy to NATO. Even when Russia wanted to demonstrate that it was a military power to be reckoned with, by sending a peace-keeping battalion from Bosnia to capture Pristina airport it tried to reduce the risk of conflict and to present the situation as a normal interaction between the peace-keepers of different Great Powers.30 The raid of the Russian paratroopers from Bosnia into Kosovo is a vivid demonstration of this approach. Although it was advertised by many nationalists as a return of Russia to its great power status, the Russian defence ministry had informed NATO in advance about its intentions. General Zavarzin, Commander of the Russian battalion, accompanied the column travelling in a car with diplomatic plates and with a diplomat passport. Thus while Russia claimed its rights to decide the future of Kosovo, it did its best to avoid any deterioration of its relations with the West.

The idea of saving people in the Balkans and of selfless self-sacrifice ceased to be an imaginable policy choice within the discourse of True Great Russia. A telling dialogue took place between Russian writer, Alexander Prokhanov, an ardent advocate of the New Soviet greatness discourse, and Colonel Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the embodiment of the Russian hero of Caucasian origin and commander of the unit of paratroopers who made the raid from Sarajevo to Pristina airport.31 Asked about the raid of the Russian battalion, Prokhanov tried to depict the raid as a heroic effort of True Russia heroes, ready to sacrifice their life in order to claim Russian glory—a gesture of great moral significance because Russia was submerged in depression, humiliation, and defeatism. Ironically, this idea was rubbished by Yevkurov. Contrary to being an act of heroism, the commander described the Kremlin decision to send paratroopers to the airport as a well-calculated political move to expand the Russian diplomatic position in the Balkans. “Why it did not work out is a separate question... ”, muses the Russian commander philosophically.32 So even for a mid-rank officer of the Russian army it was obvious that Russia’s military moves around the Balkans had a goal of securing Russia’s place at the negotiating table rather than fighting for suppressed nations of the peninsula. So great power practices were more important than ethnic and religious kinship.

Thus, Great Powerhood for Russia continued to be its ability to change or decide the fates of nations in the Balkans. The main practice through which this identity was enacted was multilateral diplomacy in which Russia and Europe would engage to address the threat of new barbarism, ethno- nationalism, and inter-ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and the Black Sea region. Drawing on an essentialist objectivist understanding of international relations, to which Russian diplomacy was inclined under both Kozyrev and Primakov, Moscow used several Soviet elements in its narrative that were then implemented in their foreign policy during the Balkan crisis. First, it emphasised that any inter-ethnic conflict, if unleashed, could grow into an uncontrollable fire. Any attempt to resolve them by force could end up in irreparable consequences not only for the Balkans, but for all of Europe and the world. The international community should therefore try to use peaceful means of conflict resolution, stick to multilateral diplomacy, and avoid any hasty action that could destabilise the subtle mechanisms of societal and ethnic processes.

The above practical elements of Russia’s great power identity shaped expectations about what the True Europe should look like. As for the Soviet Union, so for Russia: the True Europe had to bear the features of True peace-loving Russia and was expected to approve Russia’s actions. True Europe was supposed to be a permanent process of deliberations, discussions, reflection, and harmony where Russia would receive recognition of its experience, strength, and competence. In practical terms, the mechanism of recognition for Russia had to be implemented through a consensual decision-making mechanism. The OSCE33 seemed to be the European structure most qualified for this task.

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