War in the Balkans: It's spring in Belgrade, so could the first signs of a truce be in the air?

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The Independent Online
Is it the beginning of the end? In the spring sunshine in Kneza Mihaila street yesterday, it felt like it. The coffee shops were packed and a small crowd had gathered outside the headquarters of Yugoslavia's Deputy Prime Minister, Vuk Draskovic, who had been talking of a return of Kosovo Albanian refugees, of UN resolutions and UN forces, and long conversations with Mr Gazprom himself, the Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The morning papers were touting the Moscow visit of the American diplomat Strobe Talbott. Even Nato had spent its 34th night over Belgrade bombing an office block it had already destroyed; which was a bit like trying to set light to an old bonfire.

Wars tend to end when each side can drag something for itself out of the embers. And peace in the Balkans now - with UN troops in Kosovo - would present rewards to all involved. Nato could abandon a ferocious five-week air bombardment that has not saved a single Kosovo Albanian - and at the same time avoid a bloody ground war.

The Yugoslavs could save their remaining infrastructure while claiming, correctly, that only their refusal to submit to Nato's ultimatum prevented Nato troops entering Kosovo. The Russians would be brought back into international peacemaking as mediators and as an ally in the UN Security Council.

The United Nations - the old, bankrupt donkey to which America always turns when it runs into trouble - would hobble in to take over the mess (with Nato claiming, of course, that the donkey could never have hobbled into Kosovo without alliance "resolve").

Albania and Macedonia would be happy to see the back of the tens of thousands of destitute Kosovo refugees, who would go home under the "protection" of UN troops, who might be armed and who might include troops from Nato countries. There would be no independence for Kosovo, but there might - if Mr Draskovic is to be believed - be considerable autonomy. The KLA would have to lay down its guns; it wouldn't be the first ethnic minority guerrilla army to be betrayed by Washington.

Mr Draskovic claimed yesterday that the composition and mandate of a UN force was the only area of disagreement ("1 or 2 per cent") between himself and President Slobodan Milosevic. The President says Nato troops cannot be part of a UN troop commitment; Mr Draskovic says the UN Security Council would have to decide.

In reality, it is not difficult to see how an acceptable mixture of nations might be included in a peacekeeping army. Yugoslavia's old Orthodox ally Greece, and Italy - which has maintained good relations with Yugoslavia throughout the war - might provide Nato contingents, Russia could send troops (Washington has already agreed to this), while neutral EU nations with UN experience - Sweden and Ireland, for example - might be invited to join the force; along, perhaps, with India, the nation which helped to form the non-aligned movement with Yugoslavia.

But these are early days and Vuk Draskovic is not the President of Yugoslavia, even if one sometimes gets the impression he would like to be. It was only 12 hours since the very tired and emotional leader of the Serbian Renewal Party turned up at the Hyatt Hotel to announce that the Yugoslav army was occupying the pro-Draskovic Studio-B television station; yesterday, Mr Draskovic agreed that the only soldier to turn up had left after half an hour and was welcome to take coffee with him in a downtown restaurant.

In other words, Mr Draskovic - a fierce opponent of Mr Milosevic until he was seduced into the President's coalition government - is the sort of chap whose words should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. In 1991, when he was addressing crowds from the balcony of the Belgrade National Theatre, Mr Draskovic earned the nickname of Golub - Serbian for pigeon - because, in the words of one of his former supporters, "pigeons sit on balconies and shit about".

But Mr Draskovic's performance yesterday - a qualified repeat of his Monday night interview on Studio-B but this time in English and in front of scores of Serb and foreign journalists - was impressive. Although he had not spoken to Mr Milosevic for two days, Mr Draskovic said he had held a long private conversation with Mr Chernomyrdin only a few hours earlier - the Russian Balkan envoy was preparing to meet Mr Talbott - and that Mr Milosevic was in any case "ready and must be ready to accept resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations". The composition of a UN force for Kosovo would be up to the Security Council. "The UN (would) serve in Kosovo under the flag of the UN and under the mandate of the UN Security Council," he said. "This means we are very close to compromise. Who will do what first is not a crucial point - will Nato stop its aggression before our state forces start their withdrawal from Kosovo, or will our state forces commence their withdrawal and [then] Nato stops? The best thing is that both sides do this at the same moment with the full approval of the Security Council ... In the UN flag, we can recognise our own national flag. In the UN flag, we can recognise our own state's security. Often in the past Serb soldiers, under the flag of the United Nations, participated in peacekeeping missions in many parts of the world."

So the UN, it seems, are the good guys again in the Balkans. And Mr Kofi Annan - much condemned by the Yugoslav foreign ministry in the early days of the war as an American mouthpiece - is on the way to Moscow and may even (though Mr Draskovic didn't say so) be invited to Belgrade. There must be an "urgent" Security Council resolution on Kosovo "which both sides, Nato and Yugoslavia, must respect".

Then - suddenly - Mr Draskovic's words needed a pinch of salt; indeed, a whole ton of the stuff should have been carted into his party offices. The Serbs were enduring the same suffering as the Jews under the Nazis, we were told. Serbia was proud to be compared to the Jews. "Every day, Serbia is closer to Hiroshima."

We gritted our teeth - did we hear a pigeon fluttering up there at the front of the room? The 500 Yugoslav dead of Nato's bombardment - or the 400 death toll which the Yugoslav Minister of Health, Dr Leposava Milicevic, confirmed to us a few hours later - very definitely does not compare to the murder of six million Jews. Nor to the quarter of a million Japanese who died at Hiroshima (although on this occasion Mr Draskovic had at least recognised that the United States bombed both Japan and Yugoslavia).

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