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Rambouillet and Aftermath: Why the KLA Refused in Rambouillet

The KLA balked in hopes of returning with a stronger political - and military - hand at the followup talks in March. They are still holding out for independence, but risk losing Western support for NATO troops.

From the outset, the Albanian delegation--led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)--understood the Ramboulliet talks to be the start of a political process that would eventually lead to independence. The Contact Group, particularly the United States, believed that Ramboulliet would be the trigger finally leading to NATO bombing of Serbian military targets.

The Albanians and the Contact Group were united by their common distrust of Belgrade to abide by any agreement without the use of Western military force. Meanwhile the Albanian and the Serb delegations were both compromised by the fact that final the say for either side was not in Ramboulliet but Pristina and Belgrade, respectively.

The appointment of Hashim Thaci, 29, of the KLA as the head of the Albanian delegation settled the debate over who is the main Albanian voice on the Kosovo issue. During the talks, Ibrahim Rugova of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) was sidelined, as Thaci became the point man. Yet during the two weeks, the veil of mystery as to who actually commands the KLA remained, and only became apparent when the second deadline approached.

To the surprise of Washington and the rest of the Contact Group, Thaci refused to sign any agreement that did not include a clause for a referendum on independence. At the advice of the elder Kosovo Albanian leader Adem Demaci, who until the final Tuesday was perceived to be only the political spokesman for the KLA, the young Thaci refused to sign the proposed agreement. According to sources inside the delegation, of the 14 Albanian delegates (including five from the KLA), Thaci was the only hold-out against signing. Having courted Thaci, the US was therefore embarrassed to find that Demaci, the only key player who declined to come to the dance was actually calling the tune. At the last minute, a face-saving formula was devised to indicate a provisional acceptance by the Kosovo Albanians, but because of the KLA the agreement remains unsigned.

This hold-out represents a substantial gamble by the KLA. Without a doubt, the KLA's manoeuvre has, at least for now, taken the wind out of the NATO sails. But the KLA expected that, regardless of whether an agreement was signed at Rambouillet, Belgrade would launch a new offensive in Kosovo after the end of the talks. From that perspective, there seemed little reason to sign away independence when more fighting awaits back home anyway. But the KLA is gambling that even if there is fresh heavy fighting between the KLA and the Serbian forces, the new and improved KLA will prove itself on the battleground. [See The Risks of Talk by Fron Nazi, Balkan Crisis Report no.2] If this is the case, the KLA is banking that by the next talks, it will be in a stronger position to negotiate for independence.

At the same time, aware of their failure to present a credible united front at Rambouillet, the KLA and the LDK have agreed to form a new (shadow) government. In the proposed new structure, Rugova will remain president, while the KLA’s Thaci has been nominated to take the position of prime minister. The loser will be Bujar Bukoshi, the current prime-minister-in-exile, who since 1992 has been isolated by Rugova and considered a nemesis to the KLA. He will be forced out and, more importantly, turn over control of the foreign-raised reserves - roughly estimated by many to be $300 million - to the new government. As the KLA and LDK find common ground, the true test will be keeping the KLA from splitting between the hard liners (independence or nothing) and the moderates (side-lining independence in exchange for the presence of NATO ground troops).

To appease the West, the young KLA fighters-turned-politicians asked for two more weeks to convince Albanians in Kosovo to accept the accord. Many observers believe that the Albanians will sign the accord in return for NATO ground troops. But herein lies their biggest political gamble. The question is to what extent the drive and the commitment of the West to such a deployment remains after the disappointment of Ramboulliet. Already in the US, Sentors Bob Smith, Republican from New Hampshire, and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Republican from Texas, have introduced a resolution against sending US troops to Kosovo.

Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.

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