The hurdles to an accord on Kosovo

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

*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."

Among those differences is whether the Albanians should accept anything short of independence. Rugova, the longtime leader whose popularity is dwindling, is perceived to be more likely to accept a compromise, while the KLA insists that a final agreement does not rule out the possibility of independence.

A key KLA operative in the United States says the one nonnegotiable issue for the rebels is a referendum on independence after the interim period. "They [the KLA negotiators] will not negotiate unless we see a path toward self-determination. It has to be clear, it has to be on paper," he says.

That position, however, could lead to infighting within the 15-member ethnic Albanian negotiating team. US officials believe Rugova, elected as "president" of a self-declared Republic of Kosovo and head of its largest political party, will eventually settle for greater autonomy for the province within Serbia. Other moderate members might also. But that is not an option for the rebels, says the KLA operative.

A Serb advantage?

The Serbs appear to have a distinct advantage entering the talks because of their united front, a Western diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity says.

"The Yugoslavs have the advantage that no matter what they think they will say the same thing," says the diplomat. "Only what Milosevic wants will be accepted. On the other hand, the only thing the Albanians agree on is independence. It's hard to see how they will agree on anything else, especially when they voice their opinions in public."

Both sides are being watched. "If they try to make major departures from the [draft agreement], which are obviously nonstarters with the other side, we can't allow that," says Mr. Hill.

Missing from the talks will likely be Milosevic, the primary power broker in the Kosovo equation. Analysts say his absence - and the lack of his signature on any agreement - could provide the Serbs with a backdoor escape if a settlement does not go their way.

Once the Serbs and Albanians arrive in France, the international representatives from the Contact Group on the Former Yugoslavia will try to force both sides to accept a plan that calls for Kosovo to be autonomous within Yugoslavia - as it was a decade ago, before Mr. Milosevic rose to power. The plan also calls for the status of Kosovo to be revisited in three years, a provision that the Albanians hope allows for a referendum on independence.

Both NATO and the United Nations have said they are ready to act if the talks fail.

Many members of the GOP-led Congress also oppose sending more US troops to the Balkans. American soldiers have been in Bosnia since 1996 enforcing a US-brokered accord that ended almost four years of fighting but has failed to extinguish the political frictions that ignited the war.

But the European allies are conditioning their participation in a Kosovo operation on a US contribution of ground forces. The US has agreed to the small detachment, aware that failure to prevent all-out war in Kosovo would deal a humiliating blow to its credibility and fuel doubts over NATO's future as it prepares to mark its 50th year with an April summit in Washington.

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