PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — The Yugoslav government, desperately seeking a way to get NATO to stop its bombing, appears to believe that a political deal with moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova may be the key to avoiding a far larger war in Kosovo.
The immediate goal of President Slobodan Milosevic is a bombing pause, perhaps granted in return for concessions by Belgrade that could include the release of three U.S. soldiers captured last week on the Macedonia-Kosovo border.
Other elements in Milosevic's game plan include ongoing mediation efforts by Russia, the announcement this week of a unilateral cease-fire against Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas in Kosovo and the welcoming to Belgrade last week of papal envoy Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran.
The efforts to strike a political deal with Rugova are central to Belgrade's strategy for ending the war, Milan Bozic, minister without portfolio in the Yugoslav government, said Thursday in a telephone interview from Belgrade. Bozic downplayed the importance of any possible release of the captured soldiers, and the United States has rejected any deal to gain their freedom.
The Clinton administration says it won't end the bombing unless Milosevic agrees unconditionally to all of NATO's demands: end military action against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo; withdraw all army, special police and paramilitary units from the Serbian province; and allow refugees to return to their homes under the protection of a NATO-led international peacekeeping force.
"I think President Milosevic would be making a mistake to believe that anything that doesn't meet the demands laid out by the NATO alliance would bring an end to these hostilities," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said.
Primary Goal Seen as Met
Belgrade is searching, however, for some kind of solution that falls far short of meeting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's demands.
Milosevic's maneuvers may also have other aims: trying to shore up his domestic support by placing blame for continued fighting on NATO, to improve his international image, and perhaps to split NATO by making an offer that some member nations wish to accept but others insist on rejecting.
U.S. officials and non-government experts in Washington generally agree that Milosevic has changed tactics because his "ethnic cleansing" campaign has already achieved its primary objective; he hopes to split NATO unity and disrupt the alliance's determination to continue the bombing, and the relentless attacks have begun to hurt.
"He has achieved probably more than he ever thought he could," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former senior Pentagon official. "He is moving to a different phase. He has obviously changed the situation on the ground enough so that he would go into talks with a strengthened position.
"I would not bite," Korb, now a vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, added. "If we go to the table now, we are in a difficult position. We should continue to bomb for a while longer. Then we would get a much better deal."
Yugoslav officials insist they have long been trying to reach a deal.
"For 10 days now, we are working together with diplomats in Belgrade and abroad on how to get out of this vicious circle," Predrag Simic, a political advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic--a relative moderate in the Yugoslav leadership--said in a telephone interview Thursday from Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital.
NATO's rejection of the Yugoslav diplomatic feelers means that "at this moment we have a problem how to launch any kind of feasible political initiative," Simic added. "We are caught in a vicious circle, and things are spinning out of control."
Rugova's freedom of action and personal safety are in serious question, because he is in the hands of Serbian forces. He is believed to be a virtual hostage, guarded by Serbian police along with his wife and two children.
But Rugova is known as a pacifist and a moderate, and in recent days he has made some comments in the presence of foreign diplomats and reporters indicating willingness to search for a political solution. There are also sharp and long-standing tensions between Rugova and the guerrilla leadership.
Jakup Krasniqi, the KLA's political director, has said that Rugova appears to be acting out of fear and pressure from the Serbs. Krasniqi said recently that if Rugova is willingly cooperating with Milosevic in seeking a political settlement, "he has committed an act of treason against his nation."
Bozic, however, insisted that Rugova remains an important player, especially because he is the elected leader of Kosovo Albanians, although in unofficial balloting that never was recognized by Belgrade.
"Mr. Rugova is illegal, because he created illegal elections, but he is legitimate because he has majority support of Albanians in Kosovo," Bozic said. "From my point of view, he's quite capable of negotiating and being a guarantor of a solution."