One of these men was said to be George Busby, a diplomat in Her Majesty's embassy in Belgrade in the early Nineties. The other was Sergei Gryzounov, formerly a top KGB man in Belgrade, more recently Russian information minister, and now vice-president of public relations Europe for ICN Pharmaceuticals, which is owned by the Yugoslav millionaire Milan Panic - the same Panic who first opened negotiations with the Kosovo Albanians and then vainly stood in election against Slobodan Milosevic.
So what were these two old Balkan hands - and one-time rivals - talking about as they wandered the leafy boulevards? The dangers of another Balkan war? The opposition to Milosevic in Belgrade? Or the chances that the Yugoslav president might be toppled less than democratically? Could it be that the superpowers are chatting, even at this late stage, about a coup d'etat in Belgrade?
By coincidence, Mr Panic is himself in Paris today to give a public lecture. The title? "A democratic alternative as a way out of the Yugoslav crisis". Nor is Mr Panic without his own business interests in the outcome of the next Balkan war. Only a month ago, he wrote an open letter to President Chirac to complain that Milosevic had sent 200 armed Serb paramilitary police to take over ICN Pharmaceuticals in Belgrade, refusing access to the company's "American officials".
Now, why should Mr Milosevic have done that? He is, say quite a number of Serb journalists, paranoid about Westerners in Belgrade. He is worried about his own personal safety in the event of a Nato bombardment. So he should be. For the West will do anything to avoid a real Nato war in the Balkans. The word "real" is important, because we have entered a culture of "soft" war. We kill. They die. As happened in Iraq. The days when "our" soldiers fell on the field of battle have been consigned to history.
Hence we have been witnessing a very odd scenario over the past two months, a piece of theatre in which a lot of things we don't need to hear are being said and a lot of things we need to know are not being divulged. Fuming like a field marshal, our very own foreign secretary, Robin Cook, has been warning the Serbs that they will feel the full might of Nato's anger. Yet as the prospect of war got closer, so the rhetoric began to die down. Further discussions were needed; all members of the Contact Group would have to be "on side". The Russian Prime Minister Primakov would have to complete his Washington visit before the bombs could fall.
President Clinton is now banging on about morality, always a dangerous drum to beat in the prelude to war. If Milosevic doesn't sign, he will pay the price. All well and good. But the Kosovo Albanians have every reason to be worried. They meekly signed up last week not to independence but to an autonomy agreement that leaves their province very firmly in Serb hands. It was not a security guarantee. It does not promise that Nato troops will ride to the rescue if the Serbs continue to pulverise Kosovo villages. Indeed, it is not even clear what their piece of paper is worth now that the Serbs have refused to put their signature to it.
As for morality, the Kosovo Albanians understand what that means. Last month, when the US envoy Christopher Hill trotted off to Belgrade in another vain effort to get Mr Milosevic to come to heel, the Kosovars were appalled to be told that Hill had travelled to Yugoslavia with Nikola Sainovic, one of the Serb delegates. According to The Washington Post of a few days earlier, Western intelligence agencies had intercepted telephone calls between the very same Sainovic and General Sreten Lukic, commander of Serb interior ministry forces in Kosovo, about how to make the Racak massacre of 45 Albanians look like the result of a battle. Why, the Kosovars wanted to know, was Mr Hill going to Belgrade with a war criminal?
At one point during the Rambouillet peace talks, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, displayed diplomacy bordering on the infantile. Taking the Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaqi to one side, Albright asked him: "Why don't you give up the armed struggle? You could be the Gerry Adams of Kosovo!" Always supposing Mr Thaqi wished to be Mr Adams - and the KLA, remember, is supposed to be disarmed if given autonomy - what did this mean? That the Kosovo Albanians would be given a referendum on their future, like the people of Northern Ireland? No way. That their signature to an autonomy agreement would inevitably lead, over the years, to independence? That's what Yasser Arafat thought when he signed his own Oslo autonomy agreement with the Israelis (with all those American guarantees) - and look where it got him.
Yet here we are, heading for war in the Balkans. For the Beast of Baghdad, read the Beast of Belgrade. For Saddam's threat to regional Gulf security, read Slobodan's threat to regional Balkan security. For the gassings of Halabja, read the slaughter at Srebrenica. Whatever else, we will not be reminded that the Serbs are Christian, that the Kosovars are Muslim. This must not be a religious war, unless the KLA refuse to accept their autonomy or hand over their weapons after the war, in which case - fear not - anonymous diplomats will warn us that "Islamic fundamentalists" are present in Kosovo.
So what can we do to avoid war? How can Mr Milosevic be broken? There is one way in which this might be done - simple, straightforward, legal in international law, utterly moral - and that is by arresting the war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadjic, Milosevic's two henchmen in Bosnia, the men who bear most responsibility for the tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim deaths and rapes, including the slaughter at Srebrenica. Could there be a clearer warning to Mr Milosevic than their arrest and dispatch to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague?
This would give pause for thought in Belgrade. If Mladic and Karadjic now, why not Milosevic later? And they live, these two Bosnian Serb gentlemen, in areas of ex-Yugoslavia already controlled by Nato forces. But no. French and American troops might end up in a fire-fight if they attempted to grab them. There might be Western casualties. Nato troops might go home in coffins. And, in the new culture of war without death, that would be unforgivable.
So we are preparing for cruise missiles and Stealth bombers and F-16s over Serbia. And then what? What if Mr Milosevic refuses to cave in? Are we going to invade Serbia? No, we are not - no more than we are going to invade Iraq to get rid of Saddam. The truth is, we have no plans whatever for what happens after the bombs fall. The Kosovo Albanians may blissfully hope that Nato's sixth cavalry will come charging in from Macedonia. But if Nato will not risk its soldiers to collar the warlords of Bosnia, what makes the Kosovars think they'll be any more promiscuous with their lives in Kosovo?
No wonder, then, that those two middle-aged men were walking around the 8th arrondissement in such deep conversation last week. A coup d'etat in Belgrade? Now there's a desperate measure indeed to avoid the prospect of a real Balkan war.Reuse content