February 6-8 Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Yugoslavia. In less than three days Sergeev met with the new Yugoslav leadership, the NATO General Secretary, commanders of international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR) and Kosovo (KFOR), the leader of the provisional administration in Kosovo, as well as with Russian servicemen deployed in the Balkans within SFOR and KFOR.

This was not the Russian Defense Minister’s first visit to the Balkans. He took a similar trip three years ago. However, at that time the situation during his visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia was different. Yugoslavia has new leadership. Changes also occurred in relations between Russia and NATO. The tension in Kosovo – including the northeastern part of the territory (Precevo area) – is still high. The international scandal associated with the so-called “Balkan syndrome” continues in Europe. It is also possible that zones contaminated with depleted uranium are located in areas where Russian peacekeepers are deployed.

In other words, the visit of the Russian Defense Minister to the Balkans was difficult and very important. According to military sources, during the visit the minister fulfilled the following tasks.

During Sergeev’s visit to Belgrade on February 6-7, he met and negotiated with new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, Defense Minister Slobodan Krapovic, and General Staff Chief Nebojsa Pavkovic. The parties signed a plan of measures for development of relations between defense ministries of Russia and Yugoslavia.

It is known that international sanctions are still in effect against Yugoslavia. They prohibit supply of armaments to the country. However, the sanctions will probably be lifted in the near future. Hence, new prospects will open for the military and for military technological cooperation between Moscow and Belgrade.

Russia plans tow provide substantial assistance in rearming the Yugoslav Armed Forces. According to NATO information, during the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia in spring and summer 1999, 86% of Yugoslavia’s MiG-29 and 35% of MiG-23 fighters were put out of order, and almost two-thirds of the S-125 and S-75 SAM systems were destroyed. Russia may replace them with modern upgraded airplanes and SAM systems. Russia may also train military specialists for the Yugoslav Armed Forces in its military educational institutions. All these issues were subjects of negotiations between the Russian Defense Minister and his Yugoslav counterpart.

Moscow and Belgrade also discussed issues regarding provision of security in the Balkans, and counteraction to plans by Albanian separatists to wage a new war in the south of Serbia. According to Colonel General Georgy Shpak, Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, who also arrived in Kosovo, Albanian militants regularly fire at Russian checkpoints. The situation in the areas of deployment of the 14th and 13th task groups is especially tense. Shpak adds that Russian peacekeepers stationed in the security zone on the administrative border between Kosovo and Serbia proper frequently registered noise of fighting in the southern districts of Serbia (Precevo, Buyanovac, and Medvedja), where the regular Serb troops combat the so-called Precevo Liberation Army. According to Russian observers, the Precevo Liberation Army consists to 80% of the militants of the Kosovo Liberation Army who have not surrendered their arms, and continue provocations against the Serb security services and police.

Concerned about the tension in Kosovo, Sergeev met with NATO leadership and KFOR command on February 8, and spoke about the further demilitarization of the Precevo Liberation Army, and more stringent control over observance of UN resolution 1244.

It is known that the Russian military contingent in Kosovo, which includes almost 3,000 troops, is not directly subordinated to KFOR, which is a structural division of NATO and acts in accordance with resolutions of its military political leadership (NATO Council). However, this circumstance does not hinder close cooperation of Russian peacekeepers and KFOR, and fulfillment of common stabilization and peacekeeping tasks in the conflict zone. Both Russian peacekeepers and NATO commands agree on this point. However, problems still remain on the general political level between Russia and NATO.

During the Russia-NATO summit in December 2000, Sergeev voiced his stance about resolving the conflict in Kosovo. This position still remains up to date. Moscow is against the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia. The Russian delegation insists on the stringent fulfillment of resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council about Kosovo and Military Technical Agreement, including the part regarding the return of Serb refugees and Yugoslav Armed Forces and security agencies to Kosovo. Sergeev again proposed signing an agreement between KFOR and Belgrade on the status of the peacekeeping contingents in Kosovo. According to the minister, it is necessary to start a political process defining the parameters of Kosovo’s broadened autonomy within Yugoslavia.

During an interview with journalists last week, Marshal Sergeev announced that the Defense Ministry would draw the attention of the international community to the problem of the “Balkan syndrome.” The minister spoke about this issue during his meetings with the NATO leadership and the KFOR command. Moscow proposes organizing a conference of experts within the framework of the OSCE and UN to allow professionals to measure objectively the “degree of hazard of depleted uranium use for human lives.”

The Defense Ministry reports that a special medical examination of Russian peacekeepers is being completed in Kosovo. Specialists are also measuring background radiation and trying to locate possibly contaminated areas. So far they have not found any contaminated zones. Meanwhile, it is reported that private of the reserve Victor Dolgikh, who served under contract in the Russian peacekeeping contingent, has a blood disease resembling leukemia. Dolgikh served as a cook of the mess of Slatina airfield. The mess is close to places of the Yugoslav underground airfield bombardment by NATO. Military ecologists said that NATO dropped penetration bombs at the underground airfield, and fired projectiles, including some with depleted uranium, at the armored vehicles guarding the airfield. Dolgikh does not rule out that he may have been in contact with uranium decay products, because he took stones, pieces or iron, and so on in the area of the airfield. Thus, the Russian leadership not only actively works on providing environmental and medical safety for the peacekeepers in Kosovo, but is also attempting to awaken concern over this problem among the international community. The visit of Defense Minister Sergeev was a definite step in this process.