Rambouillet and Aftermath: Still Practising the Process of Peace

The clearest loss from Rambouillet is international credibility. The fragile consensus on the NATO deadline may not be reassembled in March. If Milosevic didn't agree at Rambouillet, what could possibly compel him to agree a few weeks later?

Rambouillet and Aftermath: Still Practising the Process of Peace

The clearest loss from Rambouillet is international credibility. The fragile consensus on the NATO deadline may not be reassembled in March. If Milosevic didn't agree at Rambouillet, what could possibly compel him to agree a few weeks later?

Friday, 26 February, 1999

The gap between absolute disaster and arguable failure at the Kosovo talks in France was about one hour.

Throughout the final day of talks on Kosovo at Rambouillet, US spokesman James Rubin maintained his candidate's grin and spun hard to put a positive face on what looked like the abyss. After 17 days of intense negotiations and a major wind-up of NATO bombing threats against Yugoslavia, the prospects for a deal looked bad. "Peace is not an event," Rubin had declared to the journalists' scrum about noon, "it's a process."

It was an extraordinary statement from the very people who had contrived the whole Rambouillet "peace event" in the first place. The conference had been rushed through in a few weeks in the aftermath of the Racak massacre, with much of the hard preparatory work for a peace deal replaced by the threat of cruise missiles.

If such closed door "proximity talks" had worked for Bosnia and Northern Ireland, why not short-cut the details and try them out straightaway for Kosovo? Indeed, a planned meeting of the Kosovo Albanians in Vienna, critical for establishing a unified Albanian platform on the crisis, had been superseded by Rambouillet. But with expectations that the Kosovo Albanians would accept almost anything in the end--in last autumn's Kosovo talks the US barely consulted them--the Western powers believed they finally had Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic cornered. Agree a deal on Kosovo by the deadline, or suffer NATO's worst.

But at the time of Rubin's "peace is a process" appearance in the windswept Place de la Liberation, the mediators had nothing. The Yugoslavs, led by Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, but answerable completely to Milosevic, were refusing NATO deployment in Kosovo - deemed the sine qua non of any workable accord. Of course, independence was also out.

The great frustration (and surprise) for the internationals, however, was the rejection by the Albanians. Hashim Thaci, 29, a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and head of the Kosovo Albanian delegation, was refusing to sign anything - this despite threats, so it was rumoured, that the US would officially brand the KLA a "terrorist organisation" if it failed to get with the programme.

Independence was obviously the key: the Albanians were demanding language that would confer legitimacy on a referendum after the three-year's international protectorate on the status of the province. Equally important, however, was the status of the KLA itself, which documents stated would have to disarm and disband. Many of the details of the political settlement detailed in the 85-page draft accorded hammered out at Rambouillet go a long way towards re-establishing autonomy in Kosovo and dramatically curtail the ability of Serb forces to repress Albanians there. But especially with Belgrade rejecting the critical military component of the deal, KLA representatives were in no mind to sign away their struggle.

Thus the mediators' nightmare. With the Albanians also refusing a deal, the threat of NATO bombs raining down on a recalcitrant Milosevic - the scenario championed by Foreign Minister Robin Cook and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - was moot. With the latest "deadline" passed, six foreign ministers assembled, and journalists already making their way to the army barracks for the final press conference, Rubin still spun for time. But there was no deal, and the entire episode looked a shambles. Journalists' mobile phones were buzzing with reports of fresh fighting in Kosovo, and a real Balkan war seemed in the offing.

In the event, Rambouillet was salvaged by a single artful sentence crafted in the final minutes by Veton Surroi, a leading Kosovo newspaper editor, formerly with the BBC, and a long-time political activist. Christopher Hill, US Ambassador to Macedonia and lead mediator at the talks, attempted a final polling of the Albanians in hopes of bouncing Thaci into line. Surroi interrupted to expound on the importance of getting to a unified yes, and propose a tortured formula to which they could all agree: "The delegation of Kosovo with consensus understands that it can sign the Agreement in two weeks after consultation with the people of Kosovo and political and military institutions." Nodded assent around the room signalled that it would do.

This and two other points on security issues and the future independence referendum were hurriedly typed out and multiple copies in English pulled off the printer for the anxious ministers even before an Albanian-language version had been produced for the delegates themselves.

Minutes later, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook would announce "substantial agreement" between the parties, with only details on the "implementation" of a deal to be agreed at another conference in France on March 15. Albright proclaimed, "The logjam which has hung over the Kosovo crisis for so long has finally been broken."

Well, if peace is a process, this is some process. In the worst interpretation, Milosevic has won again. Where only a few days ago, air forces were mobilising for attack, he has slipped the noose while agreeing nothing at all. More, he has confirmed, yet again, the West's support for his key political goal of maintaining the Yugoslav borders. A few weeks of bloodshed on the ground before the next talks will stoke Albanian militancy and fragment the faint consensus between them. Artful as it may be, Surroi's one slim sentence leaves all options open.

The KLA hard-liners have also established political pre-eminence among the Kosovo Albanians. Certainly, the long-time sway of the pacifist wing led by Ibrahim Rugova, who appeared to have been a non-factor at Rambouillet, is over.

With the frustrated West blaming "both sides" (shades of Bosnia) and satisfied that it has at least given Kosovo a try, it could well temporarily wash its hands of the issue, while war spirals. Time to dust-off the old nightmare scenarios of wider war in the southern Balkans. Next stop, Macedonia.

Such an abyss is not inevitable, however, and the next two weeks will determine much. "We did the best we could," an exhausted Hill said in parting as he completed an extended group interview, "and I think we did a lot." Rubin's effective spinning did head off the worst of the next day's headlines. But peace is indeed a process, and if Rambouillet has in fact opened a path for continued constructive negotiations, it is an important accomplishment. There were countless Bosnian conferences before the mother of them all at Dayton ultimately ended the war.

The mishandling of the Kosovo delegation - and their own indecisiveness - were clear strategic blunders. But if a final agreement - and those KLA signatures - can be secured in the coming weeks, much will have been gained within the Albanian delegation. Like so many other dissident or underground groups in the post-communist countries, the Albanians are far more a national rather than a political movement, and Rambouillet may have helped their own political transition.

"The real negotiations were between the civilian and the military wings of the Albanians," one Albanian close to the delegation said later, "and the civilian side won." The next question will be when does the KLA become the 'Kosovo Liberation Party'?" Indeed, one of Thaci's key concerns was addressed through a side understanding not to disband the KLA but rather to transform it into a professional police/security force - even, Cook hinted, possibly a multi-ethnic one.

Meantime, while its position is riddled with holes, Belgrade has apparently accepted some form of Albanian self-government, and some form of an international military presence in Kosovo. Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic, the great chameleon of Serbian politics, has started talking about "international assistance" to "disarm the terrorists." If such language signals a campaign by Milosevic to sell the troops idea at home, then perhaps the subsequent meeting in mid-March in Normandy could actually bring an accord. Asking Milosevic to relinquish real control over Kosovo within a short negotiating session was always a stretch.

And even if force must be an essential part of the negotiation process, Balkan leaders do hate to cave in to threats so explicitly. There remains the fundamental difficulty of command and control: Belgrade wants UN, the Americans insist on NATO, but perhaps some creative labelling could be found to patch up a compromise here, too.

The most serious loss from Rambouillet is probably on the international side. Washington and London had enough difficulty cobbling together acceptance of the NATO deadline threat the first time, and they may not be able to do so again.

At the closing press conference in Rambouillet, journalists' questions gave Albright and Cook ample opportunity to address the issue, but they clearly sidestepped. The ubiquitous Rubin subsequently briefed journalists that once the Albanians formally sign on to a deal, the military pressure on Belgrade is back on. "It is up to them [the Albanians] to make it black and white again," as Rubin put it.

For their part, at least one source close to the Albanian delegation made clear that they expect to win overwhelming support for their provisional agreement. Then the issue of bringing Milosevic along, he insisted, "will be turned over to NATO." But the ministers' reticence on the issue was telling. And if the bombing threat was always blunt and of uncertain credibility, now that it has been invoked (and in Belgrade's view, overcome), it is difficult to see what other levers there are to pressure Milosevic into a deal. If he didn't agree at Rambouillet, what could possibly compel him to agree a few weeks later?

Much has been made of the timing of the Kosovo crisis, coinciding with the forthcoming 50th anniversary of NATO this spring. Many analysts have argued that the West's main incentive to get a deal is mainly to avoid spoiling the celebrations with simultaneous reports of bloodshed in the European neighbourhood. At the time there will certainly be much talk of 50 years of peace in Europe. Yet after Rambouillet the risks of major instability on the Continent remain extremely high. Whatever the result from the talks, after a half-century practising the process of peace, it seems the Alliance still has some learning to do.

Anthony Borden is the executive director of IWPR.

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