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Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 18:48 GMT

World: Europe

Russia caught on horns of dilemma

President Yeltsin condemns the strikes during a television broadcast

By Russian Affairs reporter Tom de Waal

Russia has cut its contacts with Nato while opposition politicians continue to pledge support for the Serbs over the western alliance's attacks on Yugoslavia.

The ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been trying to enlist volunteers to go to Serbia. But so far the Russian government has refrained from more extreme measures.

Kosovo: Special Report
The opposition in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, has been making most of the running on the Kosovo crisis.

Its most flamboyant member, the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has announced he is enlisting volunteers to go to Serbia.

The Communist Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, has called for Moscow to start supplying Belgrade with weapons.

The Yugoslav Ambassador in Moscow, Borislav Milosevic, who is brother of the Yugoslav president, has been feted in the Duma.

Relations deteriorate

Relations between Moscow and the West are now frostier than at any time since the Cold War.

The Russian authorities have expressed great outrage but their only concrete steps thus far have been recall the Russian ambassador from Nato headquarters and to order Nato's representative out of Moscow.

Other options reportedly under consideration have included breaking the arms embargo and deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, but these have been ruled out, probably on the grounds that they would only serve to isolate Russia.

Officially Russia is neutral on the Kosovo issue and has voted to condemn Yugoslav aggression at the United Nations.

Many diplomats are strongly against offering Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic any support. Figures right across the political spectrum have condemned the Nato attacks but they have attracted no more than a few hundred protesters on to the streets.

That is consistent with public opinion polls showing that ordinary Russians have very little interest in foreign affairs.

Public anger probably stems less from solidarity with the Serbs - with whom Russia has actually had very few links for the past 40 years - than from the way Russia was ignored when the decision was made.

The only forum where it still has influence, the United Nations Security Council, was bypassed.

Primakov's tough task

All this leaves the prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who runs Russian foreign policy, with an awkward balancing act to perform.

Mr Primakov has tried to give Russia a less pro-Western and more non-aligned foreign policy. But he is also a pragmatist.

He knows that a tough anti-Western line will drastically reduce his chances of getting badly needed IMF loans, which are already written into the 1999 budget.

In the past it has taken a friendly word from President Bill Clinton or the Germans to convince sceptical IMF officials to release new funds. So he cannot afford to burn bridges with the West.

Mr Primakov, a veteran diplomat, may even be calculating that if he can keep above the fray and the Nato operation runs into trouble in a week or two, he will be able to nominate himself as a mediator between the Western alliance and the Serbs.

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