War In The Balkans: Negotiations - Russians take peace plan to Belgrade

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S SPECIAL envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin was on his way to Belgrade last night with what he termed "concrete proposals" to end the Kosovo war, but Western governments remain profoundly sceptical that any breakthrough is at hand.

Before his discussions with Slobodan Milosevic, the former Russian Prime Minister held talks in Bonn with the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Both claimed to detect "movement" on the diplomatic front but Mr Schroder warned: "This is the beginning of a process, not the end."

The deputy US Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was even gloomier yesterday in Brussels, where he met Nato ambassadors. He said there was "very, very hard work to be done" before Russia and the allies reached a common position, let alone an overall settlement with President Milosevic.

Three basic issues have to be resolved before agreement: the terms on which Nato would stop bombing, the make-up of the future Kosovo peacekeeping force, and the shape of the administration of a post-war Kosovo.

Like Belgrade, Moscow insists - and insisted again yesterday - that nothing can happen until the air strikes stop. But the key Nato countries are sticking to the letter of their summit communique in Washington last weekend.

That stated there would be no end to the bombing until Belgrade has "unequivocally" accepted its five demands, and "demonstrably" begun to withdraw its forces "according to a precise and rapid timetable".

The composition of the peacekeeping force is, if anything, an even more intractable problem. The alliance demands it must be Nato-dominated and in practice Nato-led, even if technically under the aegis of the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (Osce), and bolstered by a substantial Russian contingent.

Nato suggested it may be moving towards a common position with Moscow. But, despite Mr Chernomyrdin's claims last week, it is anything but clear whether Mr Milosevic has accepted an armed international force for Kosovo or - even if he has - what precisely he means by the term. The sacking of his deputy premier, Vuk Draskovic, after he acknowledged that acceptance of a UN-force with a Nato component in Kosovo might be inevitable, suggests hardliners are firmly in command of Mr Milosevic's government.

The signs are Belgrade is not prepared to go much beyond a lightly armed, effectively civilian force - a "KVM with side-arms," it is being called, after the 2,000-strong Kosovo Verification Mission of monitors sent in after the ill-fated ceasefire agreement of October 1998. There would be next to no Nato participation.

Indeed, Borislav Milosevic, the President's brother and Yugoslavia's ambassador to Russia, almost taunted the West yesterday by listing candidate countries alongside Russia to take part. He suggested: "Let's say India, Belarus, perhaps Cyprus; Namibia, Algeria, perhaps other Arab and Latin American countries, Argentina, Cuba." He flatly excluded any Nato member which had taken part in the bombing.

Complicating matters further is confusion over Russia's own stance. There has been no word on precisely what sort of force Moscow favours, nor its attitude to placing Kosovo under some form of UN mandate, a step which would require a Security Council resolution that could be blocked by a Russian veto.

Nato officials also detect tensions between the Foreign Ministry under Igor Ivanov, and President Yeltsin's representatives led by Mr Chernomyrdin, who has been regularly more upbeat about the prospects for a deal.

"The signals from Moscow have been conflicting," a senior British official said last night. "But you never know with Milosevic," he added, trying to find a chink of hope in the prospects facing the Russian envoy.

"He could surprise everyone. After all, in the 1995 Dayton talks on Bosnia, Milosevic agreed to give up Sarajevo with its large Serb population, just like that, when no-one expected him to. But we have to be pessimistic on what the Russians can do."

nTony Blair will visit Albania next week to meet government leaders, and see how international relief agencies are coping with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo.