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Milosevic Keeps Them Guessing

Not for the first time is the West humiliated at the court of Slobodan Milosevic.
By Zdravko Vranjes

Washington's lead negotiator in the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, left Belgrade on Thursday empty-handed. Despite the fact that his talks were announced with some fanfare, Holbrooke was forced to admit that Milosevic was not willing to change his stance.

Although he announced that US mediators will keep the open door to Milosevic and will continue to keep in touch with Russian diplomats, his departure from Belgrade was followed by the patriotic puff of the Serbian ruling coalition and the pro-state media. The messages were loud and identical: "There will be no foreign troops in Kosovo".

Shortly before Holbrooke quit Belgrade, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argued from Tirana that foreign troops could come to Kosovo only if Belgrade invited them in. Ivanov's statement confirmed the fact that Moscow still relies on changes in military part of the Kosovo draft agreement, particularly on the chain of command and equal presence of the Russian and NATO troops.

Ivica Dacic, a spokesman for Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, confirmed that the Yugoslav side would take a part in the second round of the peace talks in France, but again ruled out any possibility of the deployment of foreign troops in Kosovo.

Dacic stressed: "We are not going to invite these troops anyway, no matter what they are called or where they come from. We are prepared to accept an international presence in Kosovo--but civilian".

Milosevic has said very clearly that deployment of foreign troops used as precondition for the acceptance of the final agreement is not acceptable. And if he previously felt that the threat of NATO airstrikes was oversold by the Western alliance, he no doubt now feels that the time is right to play upon the current friction between the international community and the ethnic Albanians. Counting on the support from Russian side, Milosevic even rejected the idea of fortifying the OSCE's role in implementating the Rambouillet.

With the US failure to get the Kosovo deal in the bag, Milosevic is able to create the impression of victory over "the radical hawks of the new world order", for in spite of the increase in international pressure, the Kosovo crisis has helped him to consolidate his influence inside the country, by playing on patriotism.

Milosevic currently does not even feel the need to be polite to his current batch of visitors. Sources close to the Serb authorities are saying that during his talks with both the German Foreign Minister, Joshka Fisher, and the OSCE chairman, Knut Vollebaek, Milosevic was arrogant and agile.

Even Vollebaek asked himself what is he doing in Belgrade, at all. It is not yet clear whether the Serb side will sign the agreement in Paris. Belgrade demonstrates strong will to sign the agreement, but not if the international military presence is included. However, by making noise about foreign troops, Milosevic hid the fact that he had reversed his initial position and accepted all points of the political agreement.

What is certain however is that, right up until Monday, when the second round of Kosovo talks in Paris are scheduled to begin, international diplomatic activities will be intensive. Moreover, it is more than possible that instead of a one-day performance with the signing of the document, the talks in France could take that little bit longer. Whatever happens, next week, the largest role in the unpleasant process of finding a peaceful solution for Kosovo will continue to be played by the Yugoslav President.

Zdravko Vranjes is an independent Belgrade-based analyst.

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