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28 June 1999

Who will now master the universe?

John Lloyd meets a Serb agent, close to the Russians, and learns that the world is newly and dangero

By John Lloyd

I met Goran to check a story I was doing about secret negotiations, through an intermediary, between the Russians and Slobodan Milosevic in May. I arranged to meet him in the transit lounge of Zurich airport, through which he would pass en route from Moscow to Belgrade via Sofia. I had been told he was a senior Serb official “close to” the security services and was the point man for relations with the Russians.

He knew all about the story I was checking; indeed, he was the conduit for the secret emissary – a Swedish-born financier named Peter Castenfeld – and had taken him to and from Milosevic. He had had a 20-year association with the Russians and his knowledge of the inner calculations of Boris Yeltsin’s clan was extraordinary.

We spent three hours together, only one of them talking about Castenfeld and his role in the eventual peace deal for Kosovo. Much of the rest of the time we talked about Goran’s view of the world; a view which deepened the sense I had of a new dividing-line being etched across the maps of central Europe.

Helpful and detailed on questions of fact, Goran became angry as soon as I raised the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. He almost shouted: “There is no ethnic cleansing. What would you say if a policeman in the street is shot at by terrorists, shoots back and hits someone by accident? This is what Nato calls ethnic cleansing!” Several times he said that the Kosovo Liberation Army was full of drug-dealers and murderers and “worse than the Khmer Rouge”. He said that “what you [Nato] have done is to finance a criminal gang which will run drugs all over Europe”.

He instinctively thought of the world as divided into spheres of influence; and his sphere was the Slav world. He implicitly accepted a Russian as leader of this world; and in the same way saw Russian foreign policy as the Slav world’s foreign policy. He said that Russia “will form an anti-Nato front with China and India now – it has no choice”. He also predicted that Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia would unite into a federation – “like your European Union” – which would work at the economic, political and military level. I thought, for all that Goran was in tune with the rhetoric of the former communist world, that all this was unlikely.

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His view of Russian politics was, I thought, more realistic. “Any future Russian president,” he said, “must be a Russian nationalist. Russia must now be for the Russians. It has been run by the west for all of this decade, and now there is nothing left in this policy.”

He professed some admiration for Yeltsin. He said he had tried to convince Milosevic that Yeltsin was the leader of Russia as early as 1990 – but Milosevic, blinded by communism, had not listened. Milosevic had, he said, compounded his error by funding the leaders of the insurgency against Yeltsin in autumn 1993, with $30 million transferred from a bank account in Cyprus.

But he was savage in his criticism of the squalor into which Yeltsin’s rule had descended. The rottenness at the heart of Russian power was aided and prolonged by the west, he said, which had “bought” leading ministers so that it got cheap raw materials and a toothless Russian military. Russia’s foreign policy was run by the US State Department and its economic policy by the International Monetary Fund.

“All this will end,” said Goran. “There are very big changes happening in Russia. This is what this war has done, and the west does not realise it.”

In this matter, Goran speaks from a deep vein in Russia – and a shallower one in other post-communist states. It is a flow of opinion to which we have not given much importance, partly because it comes encrusted with paranoia, anti-Semitism and downright fantasy. The basic western calculation, these past nine years, has been that the Russians must take it because they have little choice. Now they have even less of a choice: the state is bankrupt as soon as western creditors declare it so. Though there was a touch of the old Russian verve in getting 300 paratroopers down to Pristina airport from Bosnia, it was comprehensively spoiled when these same troopers had to be supplied by the British. Russia’s claims that it will move 10,000 soldiers into Kosovo is thought by everyone else to be a fantasy: a German adviser told me that “they can’t move 70. Russia is bust; kept alive by us!”

But after a certain time Russia may think it has nothing left to lose. Worse, its people may think they have nothing more to gain from the west, which has failed to create a sustainable market economy and merely helped to establish a tiny platoon of ultra-rich with foreign bank accounts.

What is true of Russia is true of the other Slav countries. Belarus is sliding into authoritarian rule. Ukraine has just been threatened with expulsion from the Council of Europe for not adopting liberal legislation and its communists are likely to dominate the government for years to come, seeking a reunion with Russia that will inflame the nationalists in the west of the country. The large Russian diasporas in the Baltic states, the Caucasus and central Asia remain disaffected.

When Yeltsin’s second term ends next summer, the country he pledged to make part of the western world will be further away from it economically and psychologically than it was when he took office.

Yet it still has a role as the capital of Slav civilisation. Russia – and the Serbs – conform in their political choices to the theories of the US political scientist Samuel Huntington. In The Clash of Civilizations, he argued that the surest safeguard against world war is for the western Christian, eastern Orthodox, Muslim and Confucian civilisations, with their centres in Washington, Moscow, Mecca and Beijing, to recognise each other’s rights to do pretty much what they like in their own areas as long as they do not threaten world peace. This is the world of which Goran is part, and to which he is deeply attached.

Another American guru who reflects the thinking of the Nato world argues that liberal democracy is a precondition of material abundance and technological progress. He is Francis Fukuyama (see profile, page 18). His thesis, applied to foreign policy, becomes a view that only a liberal democratic state has a full moral right to rule its citizens; and that other states, when they become grossly oppressive, should be opposed, ultimately by force, even where this breaches national sovereignty. This view is summed up by the US commentator Jacob Heilbrunn: “The trouble with American foreign policy is not that it challenges national sovereignty, but that it does not challenge it often enough.”

After Kosovo, we shall see which view of the universe prevails. Nato has shown that it has the power, but the west debates how often it should be used. The east is weaker, but united in its detestation of any notion that some other force should judge how states treat their own. Goran’s paranoia and fantasies are unpleasant to us; but they have a residual power still, which is increasingly that of the powerless.

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