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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Russia Expects Compromise on Both Sides

May 03, 1999|MAURA REYNOLDS and DOYLE McMANUS and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — For more than two weeks, the Russians have been conducting their own Kosovo offensive--a diplomatic one.

So far, they appear to have little to show for it: Yugoslavia and NATO look no closer to peace than they did a month ago. But in the rarefied world of diplomacy, progress does not have to be obvious to be significant.

Today, Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin will take his peace campaign to Washington, where he is scheduled to meet with President Clinton. He has already been twice to the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade, for talks with President Slobodan Milosevic but has come away without the concessions the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has demanded.

Behind the scenes, however, while keeping the rhetoric strident, both NATO and Milosevic have quietly opened chinks in their positions that might provide the Russians just enough leverage to keep the process going to a successful conclusion.

"There are some signs the positions are modifying," said one Russian diplomat familiar with the negotiations.

Moreover, from the alliance's point of view, Russian mediation has always had two goals, only one of which was to reach a peace deal. The other was to mend relations between Russia and the West, and that has also shown some success.

"All power to them," said a State Department official. "Keeping them engaged is a good thing from our standpoint."

The Russian mission is led by Chernomyrdin, a former prime minister whom President Boris N. Yeltsin named last month to be his special envoy to the Balkans. The choice quickly won approval from NATO leaders, who see Chernomyrdin as more pro-Western than most of the rest of the Russian government.

But being pro-Western does not mean that Chernomyrdin--or the Russian government--has moved away from fundamental opposition to the NATO bombardment.

On the contrary, despite a barrage of high-level contacts, including a visit to Moscow by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the Russian position remains much closer to the one in Belgrade than to that in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered. Russia is unmoved in its conviction that the decision to bomb the sovereign nation of Yugoslavia was ill considered and illegal. And even a meeting with the U.S. president is unlikely to alter that perspective.

"There is no change in the Russian view," Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir O. Rakhmanin said. "We still believe it was a grave mistake. Now there are many more problems to solve."

No matter what NATO officials might hope, Chernomyrdin does not see his job as twisting Milosevic's arm on NATO's behalf. He is expecting concessions on both sides.

"It cannot be one-sided. It cannot be a one-way street," Rakhmanin said. "It's important to try to find compromises that would be acceptable to both sides."

Both Sides in No Rush to Reach Compromise

At least in the short term, that may be impossible. NATO and Yugoslavia both seem to feel that time is on their side, and until that changes, they have little incentive to talk compromise.

However, at some point Yugoslavia is likely to reach the point where concessions are less painful than bombs. And at some point, NATO may have to decide whether it has the stomach for a ground war.

"A negotiated settlement is only going to come about when both sides feel they have no options left," said Alan Rousso, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. "It will not come about by imaginative or coercive diplomacy on Russia's part."

In the interim, what the Russians appear to have achieved is a definition of the issues any eventual peace deal will have to address. Chernomyrdin is likely to try to refine its outlines in his meeting with Clinton.

An agreement will have to deal with five core matters: ending the bombing; withdrawing Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia; providing international peacekeepers in the province; permitting the return of refugees; and defining Kosovo's political status.

"We have determined the parameters within which we can move further," Chernomyrdin said after returning Saturday to Moscow from Belgrade, which is also the Serbian capital.

So far, the Russians seem to have persuaded each side to soften its positions just enough to keep talks going.

A NATO statement issued a little over a week ago deliberately left a smidgen of diplomatic wiggle room. It demands an "international military presence" in Kosovo but doesn't specify what kind of force or how heavily armed it would have to be. In addition, while U.S. officials have publicly insisted that all Yugoslav forces must withdraw from Kosovo, the official NATO language is less absolute. Senior U.S. officials have indicated that a withdrawal that left behind a token Yugoslav force might be acceptable. The NATO statement also does not insist on a particular political status for Kosovo.

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