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Calling The Bluff

As the Paris talks ended, both delegations did what had been expected of them. The question then turned to what, after weeks of threats, the West would do.
By IWPR

The Contact Group's bluff has finally been called. Both delegations at the Kosovo talks in Paris have definitively done what they were expected to do: an actual Albanian signature and a clear Serbian rejection of the Rambouillet agreement. But with the talks coming to an inconclusive end, after weeks of threats, the question at last is now what will the Contact Group do?


The signing ceremony March 18 with the Albanian delegation and the international mediators was low-key but infused with a sense of relief. Finally, the delegation had come to agreement, and handed Washington some demonstrable success.


Having confirmed their commitment to sign the accord on the first day of the talks, and been kept separate from the Serbian delegation, the Albanians had spent much of the week discussing the interim administration planned for the first nine months of the agreement period, in advance of elections.


They were also heavily courted, especially by the US. Only days before, the same delegation had been heavily castigated by US spokesmen for incompetence, tribalism, Marxist-Leninism and downright immaturity. Now they were being rapidly prepared to serve as key players--with a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, and a specially delivered invitation to Washington. With the US and European Union representatives also signing the accord, the Albanians are now firm partners in the "Rambouillet process."


The same could hardly be said of the Serbs. Throughout the week-long talks, the Serbian delegation, led by Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, adamantly rejected the detailed 80-plus page document hammered out at Rambouillet. "Their refusal excludes any compromise," said Fehmi Agani, a senior Albanian political figure and a member of the delegation. "It is an aggressive refusal. We expected them to refuse, but not in this way."


As at the previous talks, the Serbs again sought to divide the military and the political components of the agreement. The aim seemed to be to muddy the waters over their rejection, and to encourage the opposition of Russia and possibly other West European governments to any NATO attack.


In Rambouillet, the Serbian strategy was to focus on the question of international forces on Yugoslav territory, widely deemed to be a precondition for any successful accord. This time they focused on detailed aspects of the political accord. "We shall sign the political agreement if they accept our suggestions," Milutinovic said early in the conference.


Yet according to the Albanian delegation, the 20 pages of "suggestions" included altering up to 70 per cent of the plan completed at Rambouillet, and the international negotiators refused to discuss such fundamental changes. "Technical issues and wording questions could be entertained. But the Serbs wanted to re-open the text for substantive issues. The Contact Group said this was a meeting . . . on modalities of implementation," US spokesman Philip Reeker noted.


The Serbs now oppose the establishment of a Kosovo supreme court, which would create a separate legal system from Serbia, and want to replace it with a more limited appeals court. The delegation propose giving the Kosovo parliament a second, lower chamber, in which all ethnic groups would have equal numbers of representatives, and which would have the power to veto important decisions. They also insist that the Kosovo legal and political system be established through a statute, and not its own constitution. They also reject provisions to transform the KLA into an Albanian police force, guarantee the right to return of several hundred thousand people displaced from their homes, and ensure the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to investigate war crimes in Kosovo.


Some diplomats questioned whether the Serbs clear obstructionism would build frustration among the Contact Group and help rally support for NATO action to compel them into an accord. But reporters at the conference also sought to sniff out signs of difference between the Western diplomats and the Russian talks mediator, Boris Mayorsky. Some reports hinted that the Russians were claiming they had never approved of the deployment of NATO peacekeepers anyway; others suggested that Mayorsky consistently thought the talks should be given more time, while the West Europeans and Americans argued that further talks had lost any point. Notably, at the signing ceremony with the Albanians, Mayorsky refused to sign the Rambouillet document alongside his US and European colleagues.


Any NATO action will be controversial in any event, and this divide will fuel debate on whether all means have been fully exhausted before launching an air assault. On the final day of the talks, it appeared that they would be officially suspended for up to a week, to allow for further shuttle diplomacy and to give Belgrade one last chance. The visit of the Russian foreign minister to the US was also seen as an awkward complication for any bombing deadline.


But if military intervention began to seem inevitable, it was also suddenly depicted as highly dangerous, and not necessarily effective. As the US Congress became increasingly restive about any military action, Gen. Michael Ryan, commander of the U.S. Air Force, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing that foul weather along with an integrated force of radar and Russian-made missiles would present major hurdles for U.S. and allied pilots. "Taking this on with air power will not be easy. There is a distinct possibility that we will lose aircraft," he warned senators. Defence Department spokesman Ken Bacon told a Pentagon briefing that the Serbs have deployed dozens of SA-2, SA-3 and longer range SA-6 air defence missiles along with shoulder-fired missiles and over 2,000 anti-aircraft guns in Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia. "This is a robust, highly-integrated, well-equipped air defence system," he said.


Concern was also raised about the monitors on the ground with the Kosovo Verification Mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At the time of their initial deployment last autumn, a modest international "extraction force" was placed in Macedonia to withdraw them in case they became at risk of violence or hostage-taking. With Yugoslav forces in Kosovo securing exit routes from the province, that dangerous prospect became an increasing possibility. The political mechanism for ordering the withdrawal of international monitors not under US control was also unclear.


Even if these practical concerns could be addressed--as with the Clinton administration's bombing of Iraq over the weapons verification issue there--the question remained what bombing would achieve. A withdrawal of the verifiers and a large-scale attack could open the way for severe violence in Kosovo, with the West's now clear allies the Albanians suffering severely. Even then, it remained unclear whether such an effort would, still, make Belgrade sign. But having come this far, the West may simply have no other options.


Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.