Leading Article: A hopeful sign, but Nato should keep on bombing Serbia

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The Independent Culture
THE ART of diplomacy is in the timing as much as the substance - and, for the first time in the Kosovo crisis, diplomacy's hour seems to be upon us. Two factors have been responsible for the sudden shift in climate. One was last week's Nato summit in Washington; the other was the unexpected voice of the Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister, Vuk Draskovic, suggesting that the hitherto monolithic facade of the Belgrade leadership is starting to crack.

Mr Draskovic has warned Serbs that they are alone, that Nato remains united, and that the destructive bombing will continue. For its part, the summit has shown that a Nato ground invasion, the surest guarantee of a speedy end to the war, is not on the cards, and that weeks, maybe months, of bombing will be needed if the Allies are to prevail. For both sides, in short, the last few days have been what the Americans call a "reality check", upon which the diplomats perhaps can build. And they are trying.

Yesterday Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, was in Moscow talking to Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia's special envoy in Kosovo and the most plausible mediator of any settlement. Mr Talbott is being followed by Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, the body that was sidelined before the conflict, but which perforce will play a large part in implementing a solution to it. Later this week Mr Chernomyrdin is expected to visit Belgrade, for the second time in 10 days.

And all this is going on against a backdrop of political argument in Belgrade, with talk of serious grumbling among the generals, and rumours of mass mutiny in the ranks - factors that ought to nudge President Milosevic towards a climb-down. But let us not get carried away by wishful thinking.

Of course, a speedy diplomatic solution is fervently to be desired. But it must be the right diplomatic solution. Nato's original five demands for a settlement have, to some extent, been overtaken by events. For the Allies, there are now three non-negotiable conditions: the total withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, the introduction of a peace-keeping force with a strong Nato component and, most important of all, the return of the refugees to their homes.

Outrage at the plight of the Kosovo Albanians was the reason why Nato embarked upon this ill-executed war. Anything less than their return to a secure Kosovo will amount to a Nato defeat. Alas, the West's understandable eagerness to mend fences with the Russians may be blinding it to the fact that these conditions are perhaps not quite the ones Mr Chernomyrdin is putting to Mr Milosevic - and that, in any case, there is no sign that the Yugoslav leader is listening.

Among the many lessons of this crisis is that to Slobodan Milosevic normal standards of reason do not apply. Had he signed up to Rambouillet, or thrown in his hand after a few nights of bombing - as the Allies so confidently but erroneously believed he would - his voice would still have been heard, and Kosovo would have remained part of Serbia. Now, sooner or later, he will lose much if not all of the province. Perhaps partition will be the result. Maybe the bitter jest of moderate Serbs will be borne out, that their country will emerge from the war minus Kosovo but still saddled with Milosevic.

But these are speculations. For the moment the air war must go on. If four weeks of bombing are finally producing fissures in the regime, this is no moment to stop. For one thing, who knows where the Draskovic gambit will lead? And has Mr Milosevic ever kept a single promise in connection with Kosovo? There is no reason to believe he would long honour any undertaking given to secure a halt in the bombing. The diplomats are right to continue their labours. But we suspect it will be weeks yet before their hour truly comes.