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The First Concessions

The visit of Serbian leader Milan Milutinovic to the Paris talks has been widely reported as an opportunity to reiterate hard-line positions. But whatever the outcome, Milosevic’s puppet actually helped the talks overcome some key initial obstacles.
By Dejan Anastasijevic

On the sixth day of the Kosovo talks, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic turned up in Rambouillet, near Paris, for a surprise visit to Serbian negotiating team. Since his inauguration in 1997, Milutinovic has been derided as merely a puppet of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, and the purpose of his visit was a matter of considerable speculation.

Some well-informed sources said that he was carrying an important message from his boss. Others claimed that the Serbian team was about to be reshuffled. Hogwash, said the third camp: Milutinovic was coming as a result of Western pressure on Milosevic, to ensure the badly needed breakthrough is achieved before the first week expires. As usual, these theories turned out to be mostly untrue.

It's not as if the talks didn't need a kick-start. During the first week, both Serbs and Albanians remained firmly entrenched behind their positions. The Albanians set a declaration of a cease-fire and the deployment of NATO as necessary preconditions. This annoyed not only the Serbs but international mediators as well. The Serbs demanded that both parties sign a list of 10 "principles" (guidelines in fact earlier formulated by the Contact Group), before they would begin negotiations. These principles include general statements about a peaceful resolution of Kosovo conflict, the need for self-rule, respect for human rights, etc. But there is a catch: one of these guidelines, as Serbs have understood them, includes "perseverance of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yugoslavia". Albanians felt quite uncomfortable beginning discussions on this basis without getting something in return. In other words, each side insisted that other side sign something closely resembling capitulation even before the talks begin.

This was the situation in Rambouillet at the time of Milutinovic's arrival. "Actually, Milutinovic came on our request, because things got really complicated in here," a member of the Serbian delegation confided some days later. "His task was to persuade Contact Group ministers to press the Albanian side to sign the 10 principles." the source said. "Unfortunately, he failed."

But there was another factor. The real reason the Serbian team wanted Milutinovic's presence is that they felt squeezed between orders from Belgrade to remain adamant, and the pressure they were getting from international mediators to get serious and start discussing the Contact Group proposal. They wanted Milutinovic to taste some of this pressure himself, and help them give in without losing their face.

Apparently, this worked. Although Milutinovic kept on talking about the 10 principles, he has in the end encouraged the Serbian team to start reviewing the Contact Group papers and allow real negotiations to begin. He also held a series of press conferences laced with his peculiar sense of humour. "We want to have face to face talks with the other side," he said at one point. "If they accept [a deal], we are ready to kiss them." He said that Belgrade would eventually agree to allow NATO to deploy in Kosovo "provided that Yugoslavia joins NATO." When somebody asked him whether he was serious, he replied: "Don't ask me, ask NATO." Milutinovic and the Yugoslav team have thus continued to oppose NATO deployment while signalling that there may be room for some form of quid-pro-quo agreement.

Jokes aside, after the poor start of the first week, Milutinovic's visit was thus crucial for spurring the talks on. His arrival created a diversion which gave the Serbian team some breathing space and helped them get over the procedural difficulties--such as their initial refusal to sit face-to-face with "the terrorists" of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The real breakthrough will have to wait, and day by day those reading the tea-leaves at the talks register various levels of pessimism that any accord will be struck. The strings are of course pulled elsewhere. But all in all, the visit was not bad for a puppet.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with Vreme in Belgrade.

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