- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Russia yesterday emerged as the potential power broker in the standoff between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the West, another sign of a surprisingly aggressive foreign policy pursued by President Vladimir Putin.

Opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, who claims to have won the Sept. 24 presidential election outright, yesterday said he would consider an invitation by Mr. Putin to come to Moscow as early as tomorrow to discuss the next steps in the contested election.

"President Putin's proposal is very much in my interests," Mr. Kostunica told the Moscow daily Kommersant. "All that remains to be done is to work out certain details and the format of the meeting in Moscow."

Russian officials in Moscow said the timing of the meeting will depend on the schedule of Mr. Putin, who yesterday cut short a planned three-day visit to India to return home to deal with the Yugoslav crisis.

The embattled Mr. Milosevic has not agreed to the Moscow meeting, although Yugoslavia's ambassador to Russia, who happens to be Mr. Milosevic's older brother, said that such a visit had not been ruled out.

In the face of mass work stoppages and demonstrations by Mr. Kostunica's supporters yesterday, Mr. Milosevic is insisting that he and his rival must compete in a runoff ballot Sunday.

Western governments have denounced the government's vote-counting as a fraud, but Russia, a traditional ally of Yugoslavia, has been more cautious.

Russia's importance to the process was underscored by calls from European and U.S. officials seeking Mr. Putin's backing for the international pressure campaign to force Mr. Milosevic to go.

Despite daunting social and economic problems at home, Mr. Putin has found time to carve out an extensive foreign policy record in the five months since taking office, visiting capitals in Europe and Asia, touting a negotiating breakthrough on the Korean peninsula, issuing a new foreign policy doctrine and cultivating allies to challenge a "unipolar" world dominated by the United States.

Mr. Putin's mediation offer in Yugoslavia came in the midst of his visit to India. The trip, the first by a Russian leader in eight years, produced a new "strategic partnership" to fight international terrorism and increase trade, defense and security ties.

With the West desperate to see Mr. Milosevic gone but lacking influence inside Yugoslavia, many in Moscow believed a Russian-brokered deal to put Mr. Kostunica in power would only enhance the country's standing.

"If the peace mission succeeds, Russia will be riding high. The West will have to go along with compromises which might be agreed by the two sides and Moscow would again be viewed by its Slav allies as the wiser older brother," the Interfax news agency said in a commentary yesterday.

Since his inauguration in May formally succeeding the ailing Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has made high-profile trips to Tokyo, Beijing, Pyongyang and New Delhi.

In trips to Spain and Germany in June, he unsettled U.S. policy-makers with a vague alternative to an American national missile defense proposal. At his first Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan, Mr. Putin stole much of the limelight with details of another vague offer, this time from North Korea, to give up its missile program in exchange for help in launching its satellites.

The diplomatic moves are all the more surprising because Mr. Putin would appear to hold a relatively weak hand.

The Russian economy, while improving, remains backward and in need of massive infrastructure development. A draining rebellion in Chechnya drags on. The Russian nuclear arsenal is aging and unreliable, and the Russian military is downsizing amid a debate over what its role should be.

Mr. Putin himself is engaged in a fierce domestic power struggle with the country's regional governors and its powerful business "oligarchs."

"Contemporary Russia is simply too weak to sustain regional domination while nostalgically reclaiming superpower status," Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Carter, recently wrote.

But the Yugoslav impasse presents a fresh chance for Mr. Putin's government to establish itself as a player on the world stage, earning gratitude in the West even if its efforts fail.

"We welcome any constructive contribution Russia makes to secure a peaceful transition of power in Yugoslavia," a British Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday.

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