Nearly as dramatic as last week's "Tractor Revolution" in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, was Russia's abrupt abandonment of Slobodan Milosevic -- the dictator Moscow had staunchly defended throughout the Kosovo crisis and the Western bombing of Serbia.
Conflicting interests, superpower pretensions and anti-Western public sentiment account for the temporizing -- or, some might say, ambiguous and inadequate -- response of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Milosevic's initial refusal to concede defeat in the Yugoslav presidential elections.
Though opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica clearly won the first round outright, Putin's government chose to continue supporting Milosevic; it warned the world against interference in Yugoslavia's domestic affairs and pronounced itself in favor of a second electoral round. Putin offered to mediate in the crisis, a proposition in which neither Milosevic nor Kostunica showed interest, despite Russia's position as Yugoslavia's sole post-Cold War ally in Europe. (The alliance is relatively recent: Former Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948 and set his country on a course of nonalignment. But relations improved somewhat with the death of Stalin. After the Cold War, Russian communists effected a rapprochement with Milosevic, the last remaining communist ruler in Europe.)
The more Western leaders expressed their support for Kostunica, the more Russian communists and nationalists pressured Putin not to give up on Milosevic. Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the Duma (Russia's Parliament), blamed NATO for orchestrating Milosevic's defeat in the first round, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov remarked that the whole electoral crisis smelled of "marijuana, vodka and dollars" -- conspiratorial views widely shared by the Russian public and buttressed by reports that the United States had spent $35 million to help Kostunica win.
Ultranationalist Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky summarized the Russian case for standing by Milosevic thus: "Kostunica's victory would lead to Yugoslavia completely breaking away from Russia and entering NATO. It is not the Milosevic regime we should rescue, but a country that has been our ally."
Pressure from the Duma notwithstanding, Putin appeared unconcerned, and in the midst of the crisis chose to visit India, where he had more pressing matters to attend to -- namely, a $3 billion arms deal.
It was not until after Yugoslav demonstrators had stormed the Parliament building in Belgrade and taken over state media that Putin finally sent his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to "mediate." Coming so late, this move looked pro forma, prompted by a desire to perform at least the basic functions of a superpower trying to resolve problems in its sphere of influence.
By the time Ivanov arrived, however, all he could do was congratulate Kostunica on his victory and receive a pledge from Milosevic not to use force to hold onto power. Putin apparently judged the meeting with Milosevic necessary so that he would not appear to be caving in to the West -- which would earn him disfavor in the Duma and with the public.
Should Milosevic's fall and Kostunica's rise be viewed as a victory for the West and a defeat for Russia and its president? Neither. Kostunica has denounced NATO and pledged not to surrender Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands (which has indicted him for war crimes). Kostunica is a nationalist who has voiced support for the Serbian side in Milosevic's ethnic wars and hopes to hold onto Kosovo; he is unlikely to prove a pushover for the West. Besides, Milosevic lost the elections not because Serbian voters suddenly developed a distaste for ethnic strife or a love of the Western alliance that bombed them, but because Milosevic brought about the ruin and dismemberment of their country. Putin and his advisors know all this, and have reason to think they may soon have a chance to wield influence in Kostunica's government.
Belated as it was, the Russian president's decision to go with Kostunica reflects not a pro-Western change of heart but a desire to cut losses: Putin abandoned Milosevic only after he proved a liability. The damage a continued alliance with Milosevic could have done to the Russian economy appeared considerable and long term. Even though Russia has supplied Yugoslavia with gas and oil since the Kosovo war, and has invested millions in the reconstruction of the bomb-blasted country, Moscow's principal economic interests have lain in cooperation with the West -- and particularly with Europe. (Russia has just begun the process of working out a lucrative deal that would double its fuel exports to the European Union.) Among its major trading partners are the larger countries of the EU, which imposed sanctions on Yugoslavia as a result of the Kosovo conflict.
That Russian communists and ultranationalists could not weigh their country's economic interests against the fate of a discredited dictator, or even see that his time was up, speaks to their ineptitude and presages their coming irrelevance on the Russian political scene. Like Milosevic, they have ended up losers in the post-Cold War world.
In recognizing Kostunica, Putin showed himself a pragmatist, one who would not, in the end, be forced into playing a losing hand. He knows that in Russia, more than anywhere, history shows little mercy to losers.