Despite the sudden breakdown of talks, complete pessimism is not justified. It still seems likely that an agreement of some kind is just around the corner. But nor should we crack open the champagne if, or when, Slobodan Milosevic - and it looks as though it will probably be Milosevic himself, even though the Yugoslavian president is now officially wanted as a war criminal - finally signs on the dotted line. The aftermath of such an agreement may prove to be almost as nightmarish as what came before.
In some respects, Milosevic's last-minute avoidance of a deal has done us all a favour, reminding us how difficult it is to tie him down to an agreement that will stick. He has always been the master of the weasel phrase. Eight years on from the beginning of the Balkan wars, enough is at last enough.
As for the stalled talks, it is essential to make clear that the peace agreement is an all-or-nothing offer. Nato will have to follow through its threats to renew the bombing campaign more toughly than ever before to force the Serbbian regime to understand that it can no longer call the metaphorical and literal shots. At the same time, the build-up of ground troops must continue. They will be needed as a military force if Milosevic and his men still seek to delude themselves that they can wriggle off the hook. And they will be needed even more urgently if, or when, a form of peace is achieved.
For the moment the Serbs seem to believe that they have some cards to play with. Yesterday's demand that up to 15,000 Serb troops be allowed to stay in Kosovo flatly contradicts the agreement apparently reached last week, whereby a symbolic presence of just a few hundred would be allowed. That obduracy makes a Western determination not to give in all the more important.
One of the most depressing features of life in Serbia today is how few Serbs appreciate the extent to which Milosevic is responsible for their country's woes. That is unlikely to change, in the short term at least. As the example of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania made clear, any dictator can eventually be unseated if there is enough popular determination to do so. In Belgrade, such determination has lacking - not just since the Nato raids, which have bolstered support for Milosevic, but from long before. When pro-democracy protests in Belgrade in the winter of 1996 failed to unseat Milosevic, that was not because of the power of his tanks or secret police. Unlike in Czechoslovakia or Romania a few years earlier, not enough Serbs were determined to achieve change.
All of which is a bleak reminder of what lies ahead in Serbia, even after a Nato military victory is achieved. Bombing has helped get us this far, in persuading Belgrade to offer at least the pretence of compromise. Like the bully in the school yard, Milosevic has only ever softened his tactics when forced to do so by a stronger opponent than himself, who is ready to arm-wrestle him down. Further bombing and the threat of ground troops may get us a few steps further. The military victory will, however, pale into insignificance by comparison with the task of recreating a civil society in Serbia. Above all, Serbia needs to win its own battles against intolerance. That will be a much more difficult war to fight.Reuse content