Lonely talks at a French chateau haunted by the spectre of Milosevic

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAYTON WAS one thing. An Air Force base in the American Midwest about the size of a small English county, and F-15s, F-16s, not to mention a one-man diplomatic tank regiment named Richard Holbrooke to make the point so clearly that it could have been etched in neon on the broad Ohio sky: "Work out your problems, guys, or else..."

The methods weren't pretty and the guest quarters where Mssrs Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tujdman and Alia Izetbegovic were holed up for a month had less charm than a Day's Inn. But it worked. Peace, albeit uneasy and massively policed, came to Bosnia.

Fast forward three years to unending bloodshed in Kosovo, and another Balkan peace conference convened 10 days ago near Paris. After the unsubtle flexing of American military muscle, this was l'heure de l'Europe . If Dayton was a warning, Rambouillet has been a promise.

"Look around you and just imagine," the setting of this Balkan conference tells Serbs and Kosovo Albanians over the past two weeks: "Be reasonable, settle your differences and you too could have a share of this. You too could join rich, civilised and refined Europe."

And most tempting it has been. A gorgeous palace where French kings once sported and where Napoleon spent his final nights before being shipped to St Helena, buried in the French countryside.

A small French town whose high street (here named, inevitably, Rue Charles de Gaulle) boasts cosy restaurants where you eat like a king for pounds 10 a head, not to mention a cheese shop to pale anything in Jermyn Street SW1.

And thus it was inside the chateau: gilt and crystal chandeliers, and a magnificent panelled dining room where the Elysee caterer Lenotre laid out its offerings in a sumptuous daily buffet. For people brought up on grittier Balkan fare, this must have been paradise indeed.

La bonne table, (though cheeseburgers did appear on the second Monday), a wide selection of vins most of them grands, and fine and aromatic cognacs: le doux pays de France in her full seductive splendour. And by all accounts, the mortal enemies took to it like ducks to water.

"Don't weigh the results when it's all over, just weigh the delegates," was one shrewd diplomat's quip. But did it work? No, or rather not yet - for even in the politics of the Balkans, the possibility of a rush of good sense in the next 48 hours cannot quite be ruled out.

This has been a peace conference like few others. For one thing, the two sides show no real sign of even wanting to make peace. Barring a couple of occasions, at the opening ceremony and when Madeleine Albright was in town 10 days ago, the Serbs and Albanians haven't even negotiated face- to-face. Instead they have remained on separate floors, with American, European and Russian mediators ferrying proposals and counterproposals between them.

Above them, on the third floor, the six countries of the Contact Group each had their own office, monitoring proceedings. Sometimes, queueing for the buffet, Serb and Albanian might find themselves side by side. But as soon as they had heaped their plates, they retreated to different tables, divided by a few yards of space but by a chasm of hostility and suspicion.

And the segregation was as well. One day Hashim Thaqi, of the Kosovo Liberation Army and a leading negotiator for the ethnic Albanians, emerged from the chateau to hold a press conference in a cramped bar's even more cramped rear section (the French having with impeccable Gallic logic laid on a conference whose importance they proclaimed daily to the world, but failing to provide even a single extra telephone line or workspace for the reporters sent to cover it).

One of his Serb opposite numbers, Thaqi said, "threatened to kill me" if the Albanians didn't accept the deal on offer. Had they talked directly across a table, the room might have been knee deep in corpses after half an hour.

So much, though, for the notion of peace talks cut off from the outside. It is true that apart from odd forays like Mr Thaqi's the participants mostly stayed behind the barred gates of the chateau estate, its perimeter guarded by cohorts of CRS riot police. But the mobile phones kept buzzing and beeping, fuelling a spin war fought out in the Serb and Albanian press at home. Dayton, where the US military was seriously into the business of holding hostages, was a Trappist monastery in comparison.

One way and another, this has been a model of how not to run a diplomatic conference. The beauty of Dayton was that everyone was there. Now it would be unkind to describe the Serbian delegates here as monkeys. But perhaps because he feared arrest for war crimes, perhaps because he considered it beneath his dignity, the organ grinder has this time stayed in Belgrade, haughtily refusing to see Christopher Hill, the chief mediator who flew to see him on Friday.

Rambouillet has danced to the tune of Slobodan Milosevic. Might he make an appearance in person? Would Robin Cook or Hubert Vedrine go to Belgrade to see him? By Saturday evening however, when the Contact Group foreign ministers trooped out to meet the press, they were in no state to go anywhere.

Our untiring Foreign Secretary had been up the previous day until 5am, and had spent the rest of the night on a camp bed. As for Madeleine Albright, furious that the Albanians had said no to the deal and thus denied Washington the opportunity to unleash the cruise missiles, she looked shattered, her features pasty and wan as the whitewashed face of a Japanese kabuki actress. Failure, or its almost certain prospect, was etched on every face.

This as to have been Europe's hour, but the best that Europe can salvage from the muddle is a fudge. One deadline set in stone has passed. Why on earth, we wondered, should Mr Milosevic, unrivalled in spinning out the miseries he has visited on his own people to prolong his political survival, believe that the next one at 3pm tomorrow should be any different?

Pity, too, the hapless citizens of Rambouillet. Their pleasant town has been overrun by an uncouth media army, their regular weekend markets have been cancelled, and on Saturday, supposedly the conference's final day, the place was sealed off by roadblocks. The local paper spoke ominously of 50,000 Serbs or Albanians massing to demonstrate. In the event, if a single protester turned up, we didn't see him.

And finally, pity us, the hacks. A sure sign of thin pickings, the TV crews were quickly reduced to filming each other. Every kind of rumour flourished, from changes in arcane dispositions of the new civil judicial system for Kosovo, to the suggestion that Richard Holbrooke himself would descend upon the chateau, a deus ex machina to beat Serbs, Albanians and everyone else into submission by the sheer force of his ego.

In the end, no one walked out. But by Saturday night, no one could tell us either who had agreed to precisely what. And even if a political deal was as close as Mr Cook implied, everyone knew it depended on whether the malign puppeteer in Belgrade would accept Nato troops on Yugoslav soil.

If he doesn't, the Americans assure, the bombs will fall. But probably Mr Milosevic actually wants a few to fall, so he can blame Nato and not his misjudgements for the loss of Kosovo, which in his heart he knows that sooner or later is inevitable.

Those were some of our thoughts as we waited through the endless hours of Saturday for the ministers to come. And where were we waiting? Not in the chateau or some fine assembly hall, but in the gym of the local army barracks. Finally Rambouillet is learning something from Dayton. The tragedy is, it may be too late.

Behind the Scenes at Rambouillet

Built: 1375 - but only one tower of the 14th-century building survives

Most famous death: Francis I in 1547, when on a hunting visit

Top guest: Probably Napoleon, who stayed here just before he went into exile on St Helena

Most famous couple in residence: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis built a dairy here for his wife, and started the sheep farm that to this day breeds Rambouillet merinos, but none of this won over the Queen; the place bored Marie Antoinette

Safe haven: The Duc de Penthievre lived here undisturbed throughout the French Revolution

Era ended: Charles X signed his abdication here in 1830

Who owns it now? Since 1897 it has been the official country residence of the President of the Republic - and a favoured spot to entertain fellow heads of state