This week's turn of events in Kosovo seems to offer the United States fresh breathing room in which to pursue an end to the fourth Balkan war since 1991 and pave the way for Europe to begin the new century conflict free.
With Serbian forces pulling back from the province, NATO airstrikes on hold, and ethnic Albanian rebels observing a truce, US envoys Richard Holbrooke and Christopher Hill may have the first real opportunity in months to press ahead with efforts to arrange peace talks.
The respite also allows the US, its allies, and Russia to deploy a 2,000-member observer mission and ensure enough aid reaches ethnic Albanian civilians to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe.
"The fighting has stopped. Displaced people are beginning to return to their homes. Humanitarian aid is flowing," President Clinton said Tuesday after NATO agreed to hold off on airstrikes as Belgrade complied with demands for a major pullout of its forces from Kosovo. "We are at a hopeful moment."
Yet Mr. Clinton concedes that the US "has a lot of hard road to walk" to avert a resumption of bloodshed. Failure to do so would revive the threat of a humanitarian disaster and renew the danger of the conflict spreading. It would also constitute a foreign-policy debacle that would cast new doubts on NATO's future and US leadership of the alliance.
One major hurdle may be of Washington's own making. Its draft of a proposed peace deal represents a retreat by the Clinton administration from a pledge to Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians. Washington had promised them greater autonomy than they had before the onset of repressive Serbian rule in 1989.
Hurdles to peace
The proposal, a copy of which was obtained by the Monitor, would give municipalities more self-rule and create ethnic Albanian-run police. But Kosovo would remain a province of Serbia and would be denied the level of representation it had in the federal government before 1989.
Furthermore, the draft would give Belgrade the ability to veto decisions by a new Kosovo assembly. The proposal would create councils representing the province's ethnic groups, which would have the ability to block legislation. Working through the Serb council, Belgrade could effectively control the assembly's agenda.
Nor does the plan set out clear mechanisms for the UN war crimes tribunal to prosecute Serbian forces for alleged atrocities. It recognizes the Yugoslav and Serbian legal systems, which reject the tribunal's jurisdiction and bar extradition of citizens for trial abroad.
The plan has been rejected by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which seeks independence, and by moderate ethnic Albanians, who are willing to remain part of Yugoslavia if Kosovo is given the same self-rule as Serbia and Montenegro, the republics that make up the federation.
"The current draft proposal ... provides for less rights and privileges than the Kosovo Albanians possessed until 1989," says Paul Williams, a former State Department legal expert who advises moderate Kosovo Albanian leaders. "There is no incentive for them to sign it."
Though the plan would serve as an interim peace deal, it could be modified after three years only by the assent of both sides. That is something Belgrade, which has accepted it as a basis for talks, will never do, says Mr. Williams.
Requests for comments from US officials went unanswered.
There are more immediate hurdles to a political solution as well.
Wedded to independence
After an eight-month Serbian onslaught that killed hundreds of civilians and drove some 300,000 from their homes, ethnic Albanians say they are now wedded to independence. "We want independence and nothing less," says Florim Krasniqi, the KLA's main fund-raiser in the US. "If we have to fight, we will."
The ethnic Albanians are hampered by the lack of a unified leadership that could prevent the KLA from resuming fighting or represent the group in negotiations the US is struggling to arrange with Belgrade.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic still has large forces in Kosovo, and could easily send back those NATO compelled to withdraw. He remains determined to retain control of the province, cherished by Serbs for its historical significance, but whose population of 2 million is 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
The unarmed monitoring mission, meanwhile, will be powerless to prevent renewed violence, and its members will be potential hostages if NATO moves to launch airstrikes.