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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Balkan War Transforms Summit Plans

Diplomacy: Instead of hailing NATO's glory, gathering will focus on Kosovo campaign.

April 21, 1999|TYLER MARSHALL and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For President Clinton, this weekend's NATO summit was meant to be an upbeat extravaganza: a giant celebration of the alliance's achievements coupled with a grand vision of its future, all with the statesman-in-chief presiding.

Then came Kosovo.

At first an irritating shadow over the summit's run-up, the Balkan crisis has exploded into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's first war in 50 years of existence and turned what was planned as a three-day celebration beginning Friday into a session in crisis management. The outcome, U.S. and European officials admit, could determine not just the future of the Atlantic alliance but also the credibility of American leadership in the century to come.

The summit that many believed would highlight one of Clinton's chief attempts at vision in foreign affairs--reviving and enlarging an alliance created to deter the former Soviet Union--may now stand as a defining test of his ability to lead the world's most powerful democracies at a time of armed conflict.

Commemorative events have been slashed back, homage to the Clintonian idea of enlarging the alliance discreetly diminished, the formal attire left at home. At this, the largest gathering ever of foreign leaders in Washington, work will replace revelry.

To be sure, leaders from the 19-member alliance are still expected to tackle a series of important initiatives that extend well beyond Kosovo, including a search for consensus on:

* A new strategic concept, which will in effect be the alliance's marching orders for the decade ahead, including the types of missions it should undertake and where it should carry them out.

* How to handle the nine countries that want to join the alliance but so far have been told to wait.

* How to forge closer military cooperation and increase political confidence in nonmember countries.

* How to reshape and reequip the armed forces of several European member states that, a decade after the end of the Cold War, remain better suited to repelling a major land invasion from the east than to responding to the Kosovo-like brush-fire wars that are viewed as the new century's real large-scale threat.

There also will be time in Washington to formally welcome NATO's three newest members--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--and stress that the alliance's door is open for more new members.

"We will not forget that this is the 50th anniversary summit, but in recent days we have obviously refocused the summit on the issues at hand--the situation in Kosovo and southeastern Europe," National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told reporters Tuesday.

The result of these last-minute changes and the turmoil in the Yugoslav province is that a summit planned for 18 months is likely to end up as one of the least-scripted such high-level meetings ever. Three days before the summit is to begin, organizers were still unsure if Russia, clearly the most important non-alliance country invited, would show up. That development has left a giant question mark over a period Sunday morning set aside for the first summit involving Russian and NATO leaders.

The summit's opening session Friday morning, a three-hour meeting devoted exclusively to the crisis in Kosovo, was added only last week after it became apparent that sustained NATO airstrikes were having little deterring effect on the "ethnic cleansing" that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime is carrying out. The session replaces a morning originally devoted to a military parade and other anniversary festivities.

As a result, workers who last week erected reviewing stands along the Mall in Washington were back at it Monday, dismantling their earlier handiwork.

Berger told reporters Tuesday that the summit's opening session will be used to reaffirm alliance objectives in Kosovo--to get Yugoslav security forces out of the province, international peacekeeping troops in and ethnic Albanian refugees back. He said the leaders also will probably offer a major economic assistance package to the nations of southeastern Europe, possibly including Yugoslavia, in hopes of accelerating their development and easing the political tensions there.

Although alliance officials early this week continued to publicly profess unshakable confidence in the air campaign, those involved in planning Friday's session expect leaders to discuss a possible escalation of the war effort.

"One purpose of the meeting will be for leaders to share a sense of the mood, the feeling in other capitals about the possible introduction of ground forces," said a senior European diplomat. "If there's a place [for a discussion on ground forces], it's at that meeting."

Officials also expect leaders to explore new diplomatic options that might end the crisis, but they admit that such discussions must not be allowed to send Milosevic the wrong signals.

"The question is how to do this without making it appear that it means the military pressure is coming off," said a senior NATO diplomat.

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