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Driven by varied domestic politics, Russians on all sides back Serbs


MOSCOW -- A particularly nasty mix of domestic politics has led Russian leaders toward a paradoxical unanimity on the question of NATO air strikes in Bosnia -- namely, that they are a very dangerous idea.

The Communist-dominated parliament, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and President Boris N. Yeltsin are in unparalleled agreement in their desire to fend off Western bombing of Serbian positions.

Mr. Yeltsin was reported to be phoning Western leaders yesterday, and the foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warning that air strikes "will lead to the most serious consequences" and "worsen the situation on all fronts in Bosnia."

In the Duma, a spokesman for the Communist Party said of the proposed NATO action: "This will lead directly to a third world war."

Yet behind the scenes the various factions are motivated by strikingly different ambitions.

Among the key players, in the view of Pavel Kandel, of the Institute of Europe here, are an array of ethnic leaders from the strife-torn fringes of the old Russian empire, and their allies in Moscow.

The Abkhazians of Georgia, the northern Caucasians, the Crimean Russians, the Moldovan Russians and the Armenians are all strong supporters of the Serbs.

"For them, Serbia is a positive example, and a very useful international precedent, one that makes legal a forceful violation of existing borders," Mr. Kandel said. "And this makes their own claims legitimate."

Moreover, he said, each of these ethnic groups has been sending volunteers to Bosnia to get military training under fire. In return, he alleged, Serbia has provided financial support to the ethnic lobbies in Moscow.

And, as Mr. Yeltsin has made deals with some of these groups' enemies in recent months -- including President Eduard A. Shevardnadze of Georgia and President Geidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan -- he has driven them right into the arms of his own Russian foes.

Thus the Communists and nationalists have joined with the ethnic lobbies, not out of any real love for Serbs (or for Armenians or Abkhazians, for that matter), but out of a sensed opportunity to bash Mr. Yeltsin.

They have consistently accused him, and Mr. Kozyrev, of slavishly following a Western line. Now, faced with what could be a very politically damaging conflagration in the Balkans, Mr. Yeltsin has in fact begun following his opponents' line instead.

Russian nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, theatrically denouncing his fellow legislators yesterday for spending too much time worrying about procedures and new offices, declared: "The situation has been worsening while we are sitting here. Bombs may begin falling on thousands of our brother Slavs, Orthodox believers, and we cannot even dare speak about Yugoslavia."

One of Mr. Zhirinovsky's most implacable foes, the dissident priest Gleb Yakunin, said: "It's a crime to mix this with religion."

But, he said, ordinary Russians in fact oppose the proposed air strikes for the simple reason that they have seen enough violence and death in the past 50 years.

Mr. Kandel was a little more cynical. "For the average Russian there's the idea, of course, that the Orthodox are always ours," he said. "But in policy-making this sentimental point is not taken very seriously."

Mr. Yeltsin's representative at the Geneva peace talks, Vitaly bTC Churkin, has been pushing for the demilitarization of Sarajevo under United Nations control. The government has said that air strikes should not be undertaken without additional U.N. approval and suggested that Russia would be sure to use its veto to thwart such approval.

The democrats here are clearly worried that the Balkans could get totally out of hand, with unpredictable consequences for Russia.

Russia has been quite content to handle the brush-fire wars along its borders -- in Tajikistan, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova -- but seems unwilling to allow the West to step in to a nearby war, which, like the others, was sparked by the collapse of communism, but which is out of Russia's control.

Even the army, where a large segment of the officer corps is sympathetic to nationalist appeals, is worried about an expansion of the Balkan war because it would be ill-equipped to take on a role there itself.

Although Yegor Gaidar, head of the Russia's Choice bloc, tried to argue yesterday that national policy toward Bosnia "has nothing to do with domestic politics," it seems more likely that it has everything to do with domestic politics -- just as in Washington, Paris and London.

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