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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | NEWS ANALYSIS

Worries Arise That Pact May Forestall Peace

May 08, 1999|TYLER MARSHALL and RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The United States and its NATO allies face an uphill--and some say all but impossible--struggle as they press their search for a meaningful diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Kosovo.

In fact, some of those following the diplomatic efforts worry that a widely touted agreement signed Thursday by Russia and its partners in the Group of 8 big industrial countries is so vague and ambiguous that it may actually complicate the effort to secure a meaningful settlement.

The Bonn agreement, named for the German city where it was reached, sets forth general principles for a political solution but makes no direct mention of NATO's stipulation that all Serbian security forces leave Kosovo in advance of a settlement. Nor does it state that the international security force envisioned to implement an accord must have a core of NATO units.

The Bonn statement can in fact be read as a triumph for Russian diplomacy. It avoids any reference at all to NATO and commits the United States and its allies to accept U.N. primacy over both the security force and the civil authorities expected to administer the province once peace comes.

"As a framework for negotiation, this does not bode well," said Ivo Daalder, a White House foreign policy advisor during the early Clinton administration years who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank here. "Negotiations mean compromise, so where does that take us from here? Signing up to this is pretty awful."

The U.S. and its 18 North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies face a diplomatic battle on two fronts: They must persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO's five conditions for ending their bombing campaign. But first, they must coax Russia to accept both the spirit and the details of the alliance's conditions for peace.

Those conditions are far tougher and more detailed than those Russia subscribed to in Bonn. As a result, analysts say, the allies face an enormous task simply to present a united front to Milosevic, a task whose only real attraction is that it beats the alternatives: launching a ground war, maintaining a bombing campaign or giving up. And NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade early today could further complicate the peace proposal because China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Senior U.S. and European officials counter that the picture is not so bleak. They insist that they gave nothing away in Bonn--that the agreement's ambiguity was both deliberate and necessary to bring Moscow on board as a diplomatic ally in the search for peace. And they appear convinced that the sight of Russia and NATO agreeing to even a vague set of principles surely unsettled Milosevic, who was counting on his fellow Slavs to rally behind him.

"The Russians were sending a signal to Milosevic that an increasing international unity is closing in around him," a senior White House official said.

However, these same officials admit that they must nudge Russia beyond the vagueness of the Bonn language and toward NATO's vision of a just peace. Russia is crucial, they believe, both because of its influence over Yugoslavia and because of its enormous capacity for mischief when things do not go its way.

The courting of Russia has only just begun.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is scheduled to depart for Moscow on Monday for two days of meetings. He will follow French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine by one day and overlap with French President Jacques Chirac, who has planned talks with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and, almost certainly, Yeltsin's special envoy for Kosovo, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

"This is going to be a difficult process," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin conceded Friday. "We and the Russians still have a lot to talk about with respect to the composition of an international security presence. We also disagree on a number of other details that need to be fleshed out."

According to U.S. and European officials, the thrust of the West's message will be simple: NATO's position is good for Russia too.

"If you don't have a strong NATO presence, you won't get the refugees back and you risk destabilizing the entire region," said a European diplomat who asked not to be named. "If you let some Serb troops stay, you end up risking a civil war. Neither of those developments is in Russia's interests."

Many Serbian political commentators say that Milosevic has little choice but to go along with any plan backed by the Russians and approved by the U.N. Security Council. Otherwise, "Milosevic will find himself isolated," Bratislav Grubacic wrote Friday in the VIP Daily News Report, published in the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.

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