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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK

World: Europe

Russia's pride at stake in Kosovo

Russians protesting outside British embassy in Moscow

By Russian Affairs Analyst Stephen Dalziel

Ever since the crisis in the former Yugoslavia blew up, Russia has been consistent in its support for the Serbs and its opposition to any aggression against them by the West.

Kosovo strikes
History, religion and culture have been the most oft-cited reasons for this support. But clearly there is also a large slice of Russian self-interest, too.

Russians and Serbs are both Slav peoples, an ethnic tie which still has an emotive appeal for many. The name "Yugoslavia" means "land of the southern Slavs".

Eastern Orthodox ties

What's more, like the Russians, by religion the Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians.

"The Nato bombing has awakened a powerful impulse in Russia": Allan Little reports
Although the Orthodox Church has a looser structure than the Roman Catholic Church, its constituent parts - Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox and others - are in communion with each other.

Historically, they have often felt the need to unite against the threat of Catholicism.

A vivid account of how these ties have bound the Russians and the Serbs together can be found at the end of Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, where Russian soldiers are depicted going off to the Balkans to fight alongside the Serbs.

Although fiction, that part of the book is based on historical fact. One hundred years later, small groups of Russians have been repeating that experience.

Aspirations of former superpower

But the historical argument is beginning to look a little threadbare. If the sole reason for the Russians' support for the Serbs and opposition to the West was based on this, thousands more Russians would have gone - or even been despatched officially - to fight for the Serbs.

The main reason now for Russian indignation is a rather more basic one: national pride.

What the continuing crisis in former Yugoslavia has clearly illustrated is that, unlike the Soviet Union before it, Russia is simply not a major player on the world stage.

Gulf precedent

Even when the Soviet Union was descending into chaos in 1990, the Western allies made sure that Moscow was kept abreast of developments in the countdown to the war in the Gulf against Iraq.

This even went to the extent that the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, was informed of the timing of the start of allied action against Iraq, whereupon he tried to contact the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, in an effort to get him to back down.

Poor telecommunications between Moscow and Baghdad meant that Mr Gorbachev failed to get through, much to the allies' relief.

Western disregard

This time, not even lip service has been paid to such diplomatic niceties.

As far as the West is concerned, there is no need to consult Russia before taking action.

While it would be preferable to be able to put on a united front, Russia's failure to agree will not affect Western decision-making.

Internationally, what the crisis in the former Yugoslavia has shown is that Russia simply does not count.

To a proud nation which was used to being considered one of the world's two superpowers, such a realisation is a very bitter pill to swallow.

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