Albanians sign up to an empty peace

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The Independent Online
WAS IT drama or farce? The Kosovo Albanians signed their autonomy agreement here last night - with not a Serb present and even the Russian negotiator refusing to add his name as a witness.

"Signing up for peace," the Americans deviously called it. But it must have been the only treaty in Europe to be proclaimed a success after being signed by one side and ignored by the other.

Balkans envoy Christopher Hill was the best that the Americans could produce for this odd, stilted performance at which the four Kosovo delegates - Ibrahim Rugova and the military leader Hashem "the Snake" Thaci in the middle - dutifully signed their documents in total silence.

Austrian diplomat Boris Petritsch witnessed the signatures for the European Union. But no one said a word about the empty chair in which Boris Mayorski of Russia should have sat. "It takes two to tango," he had announced on Wednesday. He could say that again.

The Kosovo peace talks were effectively at an end. But what next? There was talk of another deadly warning ("time is running out", "those responsible will be held fully accountable") from our Foreign Secretary, Lieutenant- General Sir Robin Cook. But you only had to watch James Rubin, the US State Department spokesman, outside the Avenue Kleber conference centre, as the French riot police and plain-clothes flics glowered at the rows of television crews, to know we are not going to war. Not yet.

"It's hard to predict" what the future holds, announced Mr Rubin as immaculate a major-domo as we could expect to find in his immaculate black suit and bright red tie behind the police barricade. "Nobody wants to pursue military means." Then later, after we had been told about the Kosovars' "courageous decision to choose peace", Mr Rubin let the cat out of the bag: "Clearly the West, the international community is prepared to go the extra mile for peace."

You bet they are. At a Berlin summit, which other European Union members only heard about from the press, General Cook and his French and German opposite numbers pondered the alternatives to war. Having won first prize from the Americans for signing an agreement that leaves them a long way short of independence, Messrs Thaci, Rugova and their Kosovar colleagues are being invited to Washington for talks with Supreme Commander Madeleine Albright.

Which will keep them quiet while the Serbs continue to bombard, burn and loot the villages of Kosovo's Drenica region. So much for the "peace" that Mr Rubin was trying to proclaim yesterday.

Then there is the idea privately touted by the Americans that the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, might visit Belgrade early next week for another tilt at the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, the man whom even Richard Holbrooke couldn't break. This might constitute "the extra mile for peace" of which Mr Rubin spoke so blithely yesterday. So would a visit by Mr Cook and Hubert Vedrine of France, though they would hate to be told to go home, as Mr Hill the US negotiatorwas last month, especially if General Cook planned to do his "time is running out" act.

There were other hints of things to come in Mr Rubin's cheery meeting with the press yesterday afternoon. After Washington, the Kosovo Albanians would have to head home for "necessary consultation ... so that the implementation will stick", he told us. "It is very important for the Kosovo delegation to stay unified." It was also very important, he added, that the Kosovars should "stay in touch with the United States".

Nobody asked why this "necessary consultation" should be necessary. Was the Kosovo delegation not so unified as we have been led to believe? Could it be that there will be an unconscionable delay between the delegations' signature "for peace" and the arrival of Nato troops, a delay so long that the Kosovars will suffer hundreds more martyrs at Serb hands?

Nato has told us all again and again that if the Kosovo Albanians sign up to the autonomy agreement and the Serbs do not, then Serbia will be bombed. But it is not being bombed.

No wonder the men of Kosovo were praised for their "courageous decision to choose peace", that the Serbs were blamed by Mr Rubin for their "intransigence". Other words for their behaviour might have been chosen by the refugees fleeing the latest Serb offensive. No wonder that much was made of how Hashem Thaci personally thanked Supreme Commander Albright for her work in bringing about the agreement. She was sorry she couldn't be there, we were told.

We saw the Kosovo delegation leaving later, Mr Rugova - philosopher, intellectual, long discarded as the spearhead of independence - giving us all a royal wave from his bus.

Then came the signing ceremony. "It will be clear for all the world to see that the Kosovo Albanians have chosen the path for peace," Mr Rubin the American spokesman told us. But journalists were not even allowed to sit in the same room as the delegates.

Instead, we were invited into the French foreign ministry's conference centre to view this supposedly historic achievement on a video screen. Through a glass darkly.