The Balkans Truce: Analysis: West battling hard to defuse Russian divisions

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL the highly audible grumbling in Moscow, the Nato allies are confident they can iron out today any remaining problems with Russia over the crucial resolution to go before the UN Security Council, setting out the legal framework of a Kosovo settlement.

Foreign ministers of the G8powers, comprising the main Western countries and Russia, meet today in Bonn to finalise a draft text and map out the next steps towards a secure peace. The talks are scheduled to last two hours, suggesting most outstanding difficulties have been resolved.

Even so, with discussions between Nato and Belgrade bogged down last night over the timetable of the Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo, it was still suspected Slobodan Milosevic was seeking to exploit Moscow's unhappiness with the deal to play for time, in the hope that a split in the G8 might yet allow him to wriggle out of his predicament.

British diplomats stressed the talks in Germany would go ahead, complete with the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, whether or not the military details were tied up in General Sir Michael Jackson's meeting with Yugoslav commanders at Kumanovo, Macedonia - joined yesterday by a Russian envoy from Belgrade.

Nor, the diplomats added, was there any reason the first phase of Nato deploymentshould be delayed, even in the absence of a UN resolution. Though the text approved by the G8 is the key, it must also be acceptable to China, the fifth permanent member of the Security Council. Though Peking is expected ultimately to go along with whatever the Russians agree , its formal position remains that it will reject any resolution until Nato bombing has stopped.

The real focus is on Moscow - on a government which finds itself in the position of disowning in public a settlement its envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was instrumental in imposing on President Milosevic.

Last night Sergei Stepashin, the Russian Prime Minister, said his country still did not have a large enough role in the peace process. "Too many issues are still being resolved on Nato's terms," he said.

In fact, Western officials suspect nationalism - or rather national self- respect - is why so much criticism has been piled on Mr Chernomyrdin. A Nato diplomat said: "The Russians know that in the end they have ... to press these terms on the Serbs. But they also know how their own Communist hardliners and nationalists feel about anything that looks like kowtowing to Nato." In private, the diplomat said, Mr Ivanov is much more accommodating.

Even so, the thorniest diplomatic difficulty, Russia's role in the peace force, has not been resolved. Moscow talks of stationing 5,000 to 10,000 men alongside Nato's 50,000-strong K-FOR, but is adamant they will be under separate command. "We can never be under Nato. Never," Mr Chernomyrdin insisted again last night.

Nato is convinced the problem can be finessed, as it was in Bosnia, where a technically autonomous Russian contingent is in practice knitted into a single chain of command operated by Nato. That would be the case in Kosovo too, Robin Cook indicated at the weekend. "There can be no question of there being a distinct, independent Russian zone," the Foreign Secretary said.

His allusion was to the shadow stalking the entire peace process, a de facto partition of Kosovo. The notion is rejected by Nato and the Kosovo Albanians. But they they fear it would become reality if the Russians were granted any specific area of responsibility in the north, close to the border with Serbia proper.

Some observers saw the presence of the Russian diplomat at the military talks in Macedonia as a sign that Russian forces could be assigned a protective role for Serb civilians who chose to remain after the Yugoslav army withdrew.

The likelihood however is that the foreign ministers will skirt the issue, leaving it to be settled near the time when Russian troops actually arrive.

But that may prove tricky, given the continuing criticism in Moscow of what is seen as one concession to Nato after another; first that Nato forces should be part of the peacekeeping mission, and now that they would constitute 80 per cent or more of its strength - exactly as the allies have demanded from the start.

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