The Peace Talks: Solution - or simply a sideshow?

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The Independent Online
"LO SPILLOVER" the Italian journalist called it. Others had different names for it: creeping deadline, "stop the clock", even "sudden death". But, call it what you will, one thing was unarguable. The Rambouillet Peace Conference had slipped passed the witching hour of 12 noon.

Well past the supposedly immutable deadline, foreign ministers of the Contact Group were closeted in the chateau where the talks had been under way for a fortnight, bullying and horse-trading, brokering concessions and demands between Serbs and Ethnic Albanians. In the end the exhausted participants gave themselves more time: until 3pm on Tuesday, and - who knows? - possibly beyond.

A spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army held a packed press conference in the back of a smoke-filled cafe, while in the car park outside, lined with satellite trucks,every conceivable rumour swirled. The squeeze was on the Albanians, one diplomat said. Ah, but the Serbs have given ground on the political side, was the considered judgment of another. In truth, no one knew how long the conference would go on or whether a deal, which had seemed utterly out of the question the night before, might yet be cobbled together.

And at least you couldn't accuse anyone of not trying. Milan Milutinovic, the Serbian president, arrived on Friday for a brief consultation - and was still locked up in the chateau over 24 hours later. Mr Cook, a co- chairman of the conference also put in some overtime. The Foreign Secretary was up negotiating till 5am, and spent what was left of the night on a camp-bed. No Concorde flights and five-star hotels there.

Rambouillet, meanwhile, was under siege from within. Thousands of security police were deployed, while road blocks were operating throughout the town to prevent any mass demonstration of Albanians or Serbs.

The atmosphere during the past fortnight, however, is radically different from the last Balkan peace conference three years ago in Dayton, Ohio. There the Balkan warlords were assigned rooms in the guest quarters at the huge Wright-Paterson air base. The atmosphere was Motel-6 and fast food, lubricated by Slobodan Milosevic's preferred Scotch whisky. Outside on the runways stood F-15s, and F-16s, reminders of the real bottom line in Bosnia.

As at Dayton, the participants here were not allowed off the premises. But otherwise the mood music of Europe's approach to peace-making could not have been more different: fine foods and wines, a setting steeped in history and refinement - reminders, not of force, but of the pleasures of European civilisation to which Serbs and Albanians might aspire, if they solved their quarrel.

Some titbits did find their way out of the Dayton conclave, but nothing close to the gossip and spin flooding forth from the chateau and into the Albanian and Serb press, powered by the ubiquitous mobile phone.

But an odd feeling persisted. Dayton, however dingy, was where it was at - and not just because of the military hardware parked on the perimeter. For all the majesty of Rambouillet, for all the incessant buzzing and beeping of phones in the bars where the journalists hang out, this has been only a sideshow in the drama of Kosovo.

The reason is simple. Slobodan Milosevic went to Dayton. This time he has not left Belgrade. For all the fine-tuning of a political agreement here (and much has been achieved), the crux of the matter was military. Ultimately, everything hingeson the refusal of Mr Milosevic to countenance foreign peacekeepers on Yugoslav soil, as stipulated by the military annex to the peace document. Ultimately, everything boils down to a Yes or No from the man in Belgrade. Every diplomat here has known that if he relents, there's a deal; if not, then bombs away.

Privately, some have been furious that the door was left open to discussions in Belgrade, and that Rambouillet was most certainly not the only game in town. Which, whatever the cost to Rambouillet's pride, is as it should be. The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and will not end in a French provincial town. It will end in Kosovo - or rather in the capital which, in defiance of opinion the world over, still contends Kosovo is its to command.