War in the Balkans: Russians and US 'narrow differences'; Russia

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The Independent Online
THE WEST yesterday moved decisively to mend fences with an unhappy Russia but made little concrete progress on the more urgent question of bringing an end to the three-week Yugoslav war.

A heavily billed meeting between Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, and her Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, in Oslo yielded only a vague mutual pledge to go on talking in search for a solution to the crisis.

These were the first face-to-face talks between the two since the start of the conflict and - importantly - they clearly helped patch up some of the rawer grievances between Moscow and Washington, whose relations have sharply deteriorated.

But two critical sticking points rose to the fore over the conlfict itself: the composition of an international peacekeeping force to be deployed in Kosovo to protect returning refugees; and the issue of when Nato's bombing campaign should stop. Moscow - and Slobodan Milosevic - wants the onslaught to end at once, paving the path for a political settlement. Nato is only willing to do so once the Yugoslav president ends ethnic cleansing, and moves to pull all his forces out of Kosovo.

It was never going to be an easy encounter, given Russia's injured feelings and western annoyance at some of the wilder statements emanating from the Kremlin. Yet, after a three- hour meeting, both sides sought to put a cheerful spin on events.

The talks were "very useful and timely", said Mr Ivanov. There was "important progress" and a "narrowing of differences", said Ms Albright.

The US Secretary of State went one step further by claiming an agreement in principle with Russia on issues which were, in fact, never particularly contested by Moscow. These included the bulk of the alliance's latest demands: the immediate, verifiable, end to repression in Kosovo; the withdrawal of Milosevic's forces from Kosovo; the unconditional and safe return of refugees; and allowing international humanitarian organisations to operate throughout Yugoslavia.

But there was no sign of movement on the peacekeeping issue, the composition of the forces to be sent in to protect returning ethnic Albanians after the violence ends.

"Our sense is that it has to have a Nato core, with other countries providing other aspects, or working in co-ordination with it," said Ms Albright.

Russia sees this as a formula for allowing Moscow only a token force, while Nato's troops retain control. It also believes the make-up of the peacekeepers must be acceptable to Mr Milosevic - who adamantly opposes Nato forces in Kosovo.

Even if the Olso talks had made headway, it is a long way from finding a formula acceptable to the Serb leader. But neither party emerged from yesterday's encounter empty-handed. Russia will have taken the meeting as acknowledgment that they are a central player in resolving the Kosovo crisis - perhaps, the key.

The bellicose utterances emanating from Moscow over the last few days - mostly the result of domestic political pressure - appear to have done little damage. Both the US and Britain have been emphasing the value of Russia's "constructive role". At the same time, Moscow's refusal to concede much ground yesterday to Ms Albright will have won the applause of Serbs and ordinary Russians.

The US and Nato can now flourish the Oslo talks as evidence that they are not, as many allege, perilously sidelining Russia, and doing lasting damage to their relations with Moscow, an unstable nuclear power. Both sides in yesterday's talks emphasised that bilateral issues, unrelated to Kosovo, were fruitfully discussed.

Ms Albright may also feel she has helped to quieten the barrage of Russian criticism. It is fair to assume she left Mr Ivanov in no doubt about the dim view taken by Nato of some of the wilder rhetoric coming from Moscow - for example, Mr Yeltsin's warning last week that a Third World War could erupt if the West pushes Russia too far. The Russian Foreign Minister kept his Cold War speeches to himself yesterday.