Triumph off the agenda for Kosovo

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The Independent Online
IT WAS MEANT to end very differently: with Robin Cook and Hubert Vedrine trailing clouds of glory, the co-hosts of a conference that provided the final piece to the jigsaw of Balkan peace - a peace agreement between Serbs and Kosovo's Albanians, sealed in a former royal palace in the gentle wooded hills of central France

There may yet be a deal. But triumph was not on the agenda at Rambouillet yesterday, only weariness and relief that the show had been kept on the road after 17 days of discussions at which the two antagonists did not once negotiate with each other directly.

The outcome is a partial agreement, one that has been accepted by the Albanians, subject to a fortnight of consultations back home, but is still not embraced by the Serbs.

Indeed, Belgrade's refusal to countenance Nato peacekeepers, and its reluctance to commit itself to a political deal that does not categorically rule out Kosovo's independence, suggest that the pendulum of likelihood has swung fractionally back in the direction of Western air strikes on Serbia - if not at once, then in three or four weeks' time.

In the meantime every doubt that Rambouillet was intended to dispel remains. Can Europe settle quarrels in its own backyard? Not yet. When the crunch came it was the Americans, in the person of Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, who turned on the heat, just as Richard Holbrooke did over Bosnia at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. The Europeans just retreated, politely, to the sidelines.

The shadow of Kosovo still threatens Nato's 50th anniversary celebrations in Washington this spring. How can the alliance blithely confer upon itself a new mission, when it cannot even resolve a small-scale conflict in an obscure corner of the Balkans?

And, most important of all, even as Mr Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, announced the convocation of a "peace implementation conference" on 15 March, the fighting on the ground continued unabated, despite yesterday's Contact Group demand for a ceasefire.

Rambouillet was supposed to have been a diplomatic sword slashing through the Gordian knot of Kosovo. Agree or be bombed was the stark choice facing the Serbs. Instead, they have not agreed but for the time being will not be bombed either. Depending on one's point of view, the knot is either half cut or half tied, with no way of telling whether it will unravel entirely.

Indisputably Rambouillet is a step forward. For all their cavilling, the Serbs have yielded the principle of broad autonomy for Kosovo. They say that they are prepared to consider an unspecified "international presence" in the province to keep the peace. For their part, the ethnic Albanians, who constitute a 90 per cent majority in the province, have dropped their demand for instant and complete independence.

But old arguments persist. Belgrade rejects future independence for Kosovo, even its elevation, alongside Serbia and Montenegro, to republic status within Yugoslavia, and continues to oppose Nato-led peacekeepers. The Albanians are unhappy about the proposed disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and barely persuaded that the wording of the final statement keeps open the option of the independence that both their military and political leaders demand.

Part of the problem was a miscalculation. Washington forgot that Kosovo was a zero sum game, just as Northern Ireland was (and to some extent still is) - where a gain for one side is invariably counted by the other as a setback.

The Americans thought they had it taped: produce a political deal the Serbs could sign - and then present them with the choice of accepting Nato peacekeepers, or be bombed.

Kosovo's Albanians, it was assumed, once guaranteed the protection of Nato, would go along with anything. But they would not. In the end it took three days of wheedling, urging and insisting by the Secretary of State in person to win even conditional agreement.

The American frustration was evident. "I cannot believe that we have come so far, and yet still cannot convince these people to see sense," one diplomat complained.

But logic counts for little in Kosovo. Perhaps Slobodan Milosevic in fact wants to be bombed, enabling the Yugoslav President to explain to his countrymen that the impending loss of Kosovo is due to wicked foreigners and the overwhelming strength of Nato.

And for all the sabre- rattling, do the allies, apart from the US, want to bomb him? And if they did, would not that make it impossible to introduce foreign ground troops into Kosovo - by general consent the only way to ensure a lasting end to the fighting?

Amid such paradoxes, sense can be a rare commodity.

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