Rambouillet and Aftermath: Milosevic's Winning Hand

Belgrade’s victory was little more than the combined failure of the Contact Group and the KLA. But Milosevic will continue to exploit internal frictions among both to undermine the peace process.

Rambouillet and Aftermath: Milosevic's Winning Hand

Belgrade’s victory was little more than the combined failure of the Contact Group and the KLA. But Milosevic will continue to exploit internal frictions among both to undermine the peace process.

Slobodan Milosevic has done it again. Just as it seemed the international community was finally about to nail the Belgrade strongman, he has wiggled out, leaving Western diplomats in a state of disarray.

The Serbian delegation from Rambouillet returned to Belgrade to receive a hero's welcome. "Our team performed impeccably," said Ivan Markovic, a government spokesman. "We have achieved everything we longed for: our territorial integrity, our sovereignty, and our independence."

Not for long, some would say. The NATO threat has not been removed, and in a couple of weeks, there will be another, presumably better prepared conference. This time the Yugoslav president indeed may not escape. But it may be time to re-examine the popular notion of Milosevic as a brilliant tactician and a lousy strategist. Ten years of bad strategy ought to be enough to bring any leader down. Clearly there is something else at play.

So how did he do it this time? Actually, he didn't have to do much at all. Milosevic had two powerful allies at Rambouillet: frictions within the Contact Group and frictions within the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). If the Contact Group had maintained its unity, Milosevic would never have been able to drive a wedge between the political and military aspect of the accord. In doing so, he was able to confuse the talks and increase pressure on the Albanians. And if the Albanians' full approval had not been blocked by a rift within their own ranks (pushed particularly by KLA factions who stayed behind), NATO would have been able to bomb.

Now, the West's key trump card - a credible threat to use force - is rapidly fading into a mere bluff. This hardly inspires optimism for the success of the next conference in France, scheduled for March 15. "If one asks whether we will be ready to bomb if the Serbs sign the political agreement and remain defiant about NATO deployment, the answer is no," said a Western diplomat based in Belgrade. "France and Italy are raising serious objections. And besides, we are still not sure whether we will have the Albanians on board."

This is fine for Milosevic. Now he doesn't have to do anything at all, except send vague but generally positive signals about the political side of the deal. As long as there is no military action against him, he would be happy to talk forever. The mid-March conference is thus likely to be another essential failure, afterwards to be dubbed by diplomats a "partial success". A whole series of conferences may follow. Already French and British diplomats are on their way to Belgrade. The shuttling has begun.

The problem is that the West has invested too much in the Kosovo crisis to simply pull away. Increasingly, bombing is seen as something that would burn bridges with Belgrade. As the concept of "peace" is being replaced by that of a "peace process", keeping communications open is essential. Yet as Bosnians have learned, such a process can be something very different from peace. Just as in the earlier war, "the peace process" may become a living entity, a thing in itself which has to be maintained at all costs.

Milosevic knows how to play this game very well, and he will play hard, since Kosovo is his last valuable card. The divisions apparent at Rambouillet within the Contact Group and the KLA are only increasing, and he will exploit them. As blame for France flies across the Atlantic, the hard-line KLA spokesman Adem Demaci has rebuffed an attempt by some KLA factions to forge a provisional government which would include some moderates. Meantime, 4,500 Yugoslav soldiers and 60 tanks have already assembled on the northern border of Kosovo. Even if this is not the prelude to a new offensive by Milosevic, the tensions it causes will create more friction for the Contract Group and the Kosovo Albanians and destabilise future negotiations.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a journalist with Vreme in Belgrade.

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