As snow fell on the Serbian capital this weekend, there was little talk of Kosovo and even less talk of possible airstrikes.
"I'm sure they will not bomb us," says Miodrag Lazovic, a pensioner, as he sits in a crowded downtown cafe. "You know the story about the kid who cries wolf? It's the same thing now."
But despite the nonchalance of Serbs like Mr. Lazovic, the United States and its allies are moving firmly as they seek a quick solution to the crisis in Kosovo, Western diplomats here say.
NATO said Saturday it was prepared to act if the two warring sides - ethnic Albanians and Serbs - do not honor a cease-fire and agree to a political settlement for Kosovo. Both sides have been called to a Feb. 6 peace conference in Rambouillet, France, though neither has committed. From there, they will have two weeks to come to an agreement.
"The council has agreed today that I may authorize airstrikes against targets on Yugoslav territory," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said Jan. 30. "We rule out no option to ensure full respect by both sides in Kosovo for the requirements of the international community."
Similar threats were made against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last October - sending Belgrade into a frenzy of war preparedness - but they were lifted at the last hour in a dramatic announcement by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
This time, however, may be different - especially if the two sides don't go to France with peaceful intent.
"I'm worried that the desire to launch airstrikes is almost too strong," says a Western diplomat, who based his statements on "internal cable traffic" and revised plans for intervention that differ from those in October. "If we go through with this and the strikes take place, [our embassy] will be gone for good - like the United Nations mission in Baghdad [in Iraq]."
The determining factor in the use of military intervention will be the already questionable will of both parties: Mr. Milosevic, who has indicated that he opposes peace talks outside Yugoslavia; and the ethnic Albanians, who are clinging to a demand for independence that is not supported by the international community.
"It is a fair offer to both sides, and it is the best offer that is going to be made to produce a solution to Kosovo," says British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who on Jan. 30 delivered the peace-conference invitations to Milosevic and three ethnic Albanian leaders.
Meanwhile, violence continued in Kosovo, including a Jan. 29 gunfight in the border town of Rogovo in which 24 were killed, most of them apparently ethnic Albanian civilians. Two bombs also exploded in the provincial capital of Pristina that night, injuring seven, most of them Serbian civilians.
The planned conference, to be led by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and Mr. Cook, is loosely modeled on the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, conference that ended the war in Bosnia. At Rambouillet, the international community will try to find a political solution for Kosovo, which was an autonomous Serbian province ruled largely by Albanians until 1989, when Milosevic rose to power and installed Serbian police rule.
Diplomats will base the negotiations on a yet-to-be-released plan put together by the US envoy Christopher Hill. The plan calls for an interim period in which the Albanians would get broad autonomy, including control of the police force, judiciary, and local government. But the region would remain part of Kosovo.
If a political settlement is reached, NATO is considering a dispatch of ground forces to Kosovo. The Clinton administration is undecided on ground troops for a peacekeeping force, which could be a costly and lengthy commitment.
In the most contested part of the plan, the status of Kosovo would be revisited after three years. Western diplomats hope that by that time Yugoslavia will have undergone significant democratic reforms that would make it easier for Albanians and Serbs to coexist.
In contrast with the situation surrounding the Dayton conference, neither side is exhausted from battle, and neither side is in a position where peace talks advance its cause.
The Serbs have a superior army and know the international community does not support the border changes necessary for an independent Kosovo. Also, Milosevic has thrived as a wartime ruler, and with peace he will have to face a crumbling economy and increasing discontent at home.
The Albanians have a 90 percent population advantage in Kosovo, and the capabilities of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army are growing each day. The KLA, diplomats fear, may think it can wear down the Serbian war machine with years of guerrilla warfare.
Dealing with rebel forces
After Friday's bombing at a Serbian cafe in Pristina, which has yet to be investigated, there are new worries that the KLA is indeed becoming the "terrorist" organization that the Serbs have called it all along.
Diplomats have said NATO forces could also be used against the KLA, possibly by stationing them in neighboring Albania to prevent arms trafficking into Kosovo. But it is unknown how effective that would be, especially considering that the KLA now claims to be getting weapons via Serbia and Hungary.
"We have specifics on how to threaten the Serbs," says the diplomat. "The worry is that our basic threat to the Albanians is that we'll let the Serbs kill them."
But for Serbs in Belgrade, the threat of military intervention is largely invisible. It has not been covered in the state media and therefore does not exist in the minds of many.
"This is just a deal between [Milosevic] and the Americans," says Dejan Obradovic, who was selling fruit an open-air market. "NATO threats are just an excuse for Milosevic to give Kosovo away and save us from bombs at the last moment."