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The hurdles to an accord on Kosovo

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor andJustin Brown / February 5, 1999



WASHINGTON AND BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA

The US-led effort for Kosovo peace talks faced two major hurdles even before their opening Saturday in a castle near Paris:

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*Rebel resistance to anything short of independence for Kosovo.

*Serbia's refusal to let in NATO troops.

While the US and its partners advocate significant autonomy for the province, they also support Serbia's refusal to grant independence to Kosovo, whose majority ethnic Albanians have endured years of iron-fisted Serbian rule. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), however, appears unwilling to give up its call for independence.

But, in the short term, the barring of NATO forces in Kosovo, which the Serb parliament voted for yesterday, may also slow or scuttle the delicate negotiations.

Heading into the talks, Serbian officials appear likely to benefit from being united while the KLA-led ethnic Albanian delegation is deeply divided.

Western officials call the conference in the town of Rambouillet the last chance for the two sides to come together to find a political solution for the violence.

Should it fail, NATO has threatened to launch airstrikes against Serbia and possibly send follow-up peacekeeping ground troops for a period of three to five years. The US is considering making available 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers.

"This is going to be a very difficult set of talks," says Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia who has been central to the negotiations. "For many people in the world this is an issue that burst on the stage only a year ago, but for those of us in the Balkans, we know that this issue has been around since the turn of the century."

The international community hopes to conclude the talks in a week or two.

The two sides' representation at the talks remains unclear. The nationalist Serbian Radical Party, which was though to be a potential deal-breaker because of its hard-line stance against talks on foreign soil, agreed yesterday to support the conference. "We think [a conference] is not a bad thing to try," says Radical vice premier Vojislav Seselj, who won't attend.

Mr. Seselj, a former paramilitary leader, was once the primary opponent of Mr. Milosevic. But the two have come together in the past six months and their platforms now dovetail. Another potential voice of Serbian opposition, Vuk Draskovic, has also joined the government and has voiced similar views as Milosevic. With the three primary players united, there is hardly a voice of dissent on the issue of Kosovo. Also, the Serbs bring to the table years of experience from similar negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia.

Rifts among the Albanians

The same cannot be said of the ethnic Albanians. With Rambouillet rapidly approaching, the leaders of Kosovo's 90 percent majority were still squabbling over a negotiating team and who would lead it.

Although all of the Albanians advocate independence, their political front is torn between the hard-line guerrilla fighters of the KLA and the passive approach of Ibrahim Rugova. Making matters worse, Kosovo prime minister-in-exile Bujar Bukoshi, at odds with both the KLA and Mr. Rugova, is expected to attend.

"They are quite vicious enemies," says Dukagjin Gorani, the editor of the Koha Ditore Times, an ethnic Albanian daily in Kosovo. "There will be initial differences that they will have to settle."