Serbian election highlights the west's fears about Russia.

Fears are growing in western European capitals, and even more clearly in Washington, about the increasingly assertive role Russia is playing in international diplomacy.

This time, it is not about the fraught question of the energy security of the European Union. It is about Moscow’s involvement in the politics of the former Yugoslavia, and the delicate attempt to broker a deal between Serbia and its disputed former province of Kosovo.

On Sunday, the voters of Serbia go to the polls for a critical election in which the ultra-nationalists and reformist democrats are running neck-and-neck in the race to be the largest party.

On the same day, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is currently the chair of the EU, flies to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in which the future of Kosovo will be a key item on the agenda.

On the face of it, the elections in Serbia will have little bearing on the international plans for a "supervised independence" for the territory. All the main political parties in Belgrade are opposed to any such move. But the balance of power could still be a critical factor in the willingness of any future government at least to negotiate with the United Nations-appointed mediator, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president.

The trouble is that before any plan has been published, Mr Putin and his ministers have already made clear they will only back a settlement if it has the support of Belgrade. A senior Russian diplomat told an EU colleague recently: "The trouble is that you are too logical. For us, this is an emotional question."

"They are flirting with blocking a Kosovo settlement," a senior American official travelling with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said this week. "It is hard to say what the Russians will do."

Officials in Berlin say Mrs Merkel will seek to persuade Mr Putin to play a positive role over Kosovo, both in persuading any Serbian government to negotiate in good faith and in backing, or at least allowing, a United Nations Security Council resolution to underpin future independence. But that now seems to be in doubt.

Diplomats speculate that for Mr Putin to back any deal, he will demand a price from the US and EU. That might be for them to turn a blind eye to Russia’s pressure being exerted on its neighbour Georgia to allow the secession of its rebellious provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

German officials say Mrs Merkel will be blunt. "If the Russians cannot help, then they should get out of the way," it is said in Berlin. But the mood in Moscow is scarcely so helpful.

The mood also seems to be getting more hostile in Washington. "This is an issue of European security," the senior US official said. "Messing around with European security affects Europe immediately and tangibly. It affects the US too, but less directly. It affects Russia the least.

"To have Russia messing around in Serbia has a 1914 ring to it," he added, referring to the events leading to the outbreak of the first world war.

The Europeans are more cautious. They are anxious not to drive Serbia into a corner and are working on ways of reopening negotiations with Belgrade for a stability and association agreement, suspended because of Serbia’s inability to arrest Radko Mladic, the general wanted to be tried for war crimes at the International Tribunal in The Hague.

There is also European nervousness at evidence of a growing Russian presence in Serbia, not merely on the diplomatic front but also in the Serbian economy, where Rosneft, the Russian oil company, is stepping up its investment.

For the time being, EU diplomats are proceeding one step at a time towards a Kosovo settlement. On Monday they hope to issue a statement of congratulations on the outcome of the Serbian election – assuming the ultra-nationalists have not done too well. They will try to follow that up with action to re-open channels of communication.

In early February, Mr Ahtisaari will go to Belgrade and Pristina, to present his Kosovo settlement proposals. By the end of March, he hopes to have a package ready to put to the UN Security Council. That is when Mr Putin will have to decide if he blocks it or merely abstains.

[Source: Financial Times, London, 19Jan07]

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