War In The Balkans - Diplomacy: German pact in danger as Greens rebel on Kosovo

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THE STRAIN of keeping the German government together in the midst of a war that may be destined to destroy it, is beginning to tell. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's fine head of hair has been visibly thinning of late. Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister, has been greying fast, and has the haggard look of newly fledged father perpetually deprived of sleep.

Neither man is short of work. In recent weeks, Germany has become the hub of diplomatic efforts to end the war in Kosovo. With the notable exception of Slobodan Milosevic, virtually every major actor in the conflict has visited Bonn or Berlin.

The politicians in the middle of this whirlwind have found little opportunity to rest. And now, thanks to the CIA's cartographers, Mr Schroder's one scheduled escape from it all, a laid-back one-day trip to China, has been shortened by his hosts and transformed into a grovelling mission of apologies. Perhaps it's just as well that he is coming home early. For the rickety coalition of Social Democrats and Greens cannot be left unattended for long, especially as it faces its toughest test. Tomorrow, the Greens are holding an emergency party conference on Kosovo, one that could push the government to the brink of collapse.

The Greens, part eco-warriors, part pacifists, have been in turmoil since day one of the Nato campaign. Their leader, Mr Fischer, has won much praise in the party for his handling of the conflict, but his position is becoming increasingly untenable. Another mistake over the skies of Yugoslavia, and the party might well be instructing the Foreign Minister to oppose Nato and sue immediately for peace. In that situation, Mr Schroder would have no choice but expel the Greens from his cabinet, bringing the "Red- Green" project to a premature end after only six months.

That is the worst-case scenario, but even the most likely outcome does not look much rosier. A flurry of motions are circulating among Green delegates, not one of which approves the current course of the war. The chances are that when Chancellor Schroder gets back tomorrow evening, he will be confronted with a new foreign policy, one opposed to further Nato bombing.

The resolution that has been adopted by most regional party conventions demands an "unconditional stop to the bombing", whilst expressing approval for Mr Fischer's peace endeavours. The pacifist wing wants to go further, seeking a motion that instructs Green ministers to leave the government if it sticks to its current course. That has no chance of succeeding, but the compromise formula does not give much room for manoeuvre either. If Mr Fischer is lucky, the delegates will issue a call for "a unilateral suspension of the bombing".

This is the phrase hammered out by the party leadership; the lowest common denominator. If Mr Fischer makes it his own, Nato's cohesion will be shattered. Germany will become a loud dissonant voice in the alliance chorus, which urges a Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo before the bombers are grounded.

"A temporary halt to the air raids would send out a signal that would boost the diplomatic prospects of peaceful solution," one of the Greens' co-leaders, Gunda Rostel, explained yesterday. Jurgen Trittin, the Environment Minister who has consistently criticised the air campaign, went so far as to express his "horror" at civilian casualties. "For me it is not right that Nato planes should drop splinter bombs and attack civilian targets, such as power plants and television stations," he told the Bild newspaper. "That has got to stop."

Mr Fischer could, of course, ignore his party, as he has been doing for years. Never a pacifist, he became an advocate of war against genocidal tyrants after the Bosnian Serbs mass murder of about 5,000 men from Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in July 1995. To some extent, he has been vindicated. The majority of Greens supported Nato's air campaign in the first weeks, and still a staggering 92 per cent of Green party members approve his handling of the Kosovo crisis so far.

But it was Mr Fischer who advocated a "pause" in the bombing to give the Serbs a chance to pull out. That was the sticking point in the much- maligned German peace proposal, which has since emerged as Nato's only hope of a decent end to the war. If Mr Milosevic were as smart as he is cracked up to be, he would produce some evidence of a withdrawal. That would put the Germans on the spot.

Public support for a war that no German wanted is already crumbling. From its high of over 60 per cent in the first weeks, the poll figures for those approving Nato's air raids have been halved. Chancellor Schroder, at first a bemused observer of Green obfuscation, is beginning to hear the clamour even within his own party. Oskar Lafontaine, the former finance minister, has come out of his self-imposed retirement to put himself at the head of a peace movement. Mr Lafontaine did not get very far, but Social Democrat left-wingers are stirring without his help. A motion calling for a unilateral ceasefire failed to get through the party executive, but they will try again. Mr Schroder knows he is on probation, along with Nato.

All this explains why German politicians have been working so hard to bring peace. In no other Nato country are the stakes so high. This is Germany's first war for 54 years, and this is the first time the country is being governed by a "Red-Green" coalition. The two were always thought to be mutually exclusive, and may well turn out so, burying Nato's edifice of unity in the wreckage.