The stakes are high for all involved.
It may be the last chance for Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders to avoid an all-out war over Kosovo.
For the United States and its NATO allies, their credibility, the future of the alliance, and the stability of southeastern Europe are at stake. It is also a test of whether Britain and France, eager to take on greater responsibility for European security, can erase the stain of their inaction in Bosnia. Russia, bankrupt and beset by turmoil, is struggling to retain what is left of its once-formidable influence.
Western mediators seemed encouraged Sunday by the two sides' acceptance of 10 basic principles for an interim deal. Yet optimism for a quick settlement was in short supply as talks began in earnest in the Chateau de Rambouillet, a 14th-century palace that is France's equivalent of Camp David.
Two weeks have been allotted for the negotiations. US officials hope only a week will be needed to reach a three-year interim accord on autonomy for Kosovo, a province of Serbia, which with Montenegro is all that remains of Yugoslavia. Kosovo's 2-million-majority ethnic Albanians back rebels fighting for independence from a decade of iron-fisted Serbian rule.
Some US officials concede that the final bargaining may ultimately have to be conducted directly in Belgrade with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. An autocrat who rose to power by using Kosovo to fan Serbian nationalism, the former Communist Party chief refused to attend the talks, dispatching instead a team of proxies.
It was within the marbled splendor of this same chateau that the late French President Charles deGaulle and Germany's first post-World War II chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, began the process of reconciliation. In contrast, the start of the Kosovo talks was marred by posturing that began even before the sides arrived in this small town 30 miles from Paris.
Yugoslavia refused to allow two ethnic Albanian rebel negotiators to fly out of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, because they lacked passports, threatening the talks. In a rare show of unity, the rest of the 15-member ethnic Albanian delegation declined to leave. Diplomatic pressure on Mr. Milosevic ended the impasse Saturday.
Then, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic, after arriving in Paris, declared that his 13-member team would not negotiate - directly or indirectly - with "terrorists" of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The move was aimed at limiting its dialogue to one with Ibrahim Rugova, a moderate who is believed willing to drop the demand for independence in return for substantial autonomy.
Furthermore, while agreeing to attend the talks, Belgrade rejected the proposed deployment of up to 35,000 NATO troops - including as many as 4,000 Americans - in Kosovo to police any peace agreement. Some experts see that stand as a bargaining chip Belgrade hopes to trade for an end to crushing economic sanctions it has been under since 1992 because of its role in fomenting the war in Bosnia.
But senior US officials say the ploy won't work. "A NATO implementation force is part of the deal," says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "I guess it's not unexpected that the Serbs would be trying to make bargains like that." For their part, KLA leaders reiterated their demand that the three-year interim period conclude with a referendum on independence.
"This is one thing we will not negotiate," says a key KLA operative. The KLA was also reportedly rejecting a stipulation that its arms be handed over and held in NATO-guarded stocks.
THE posturing was not confined to the rivals. French and US officials disagreed on the size of the ethnic Albanian delegation; the French also decided against inviting representatives of NATO, which has threatened to launch airstrikes against the Serbs should they reject a peace deal. NATO is also considering ways of cutting off arms supplied to the KLA should the rebels obstruct a settlement.
French officials also barred from the conference American legal advisers and senior aides to the ethnic Albanian negotiators. "It's a mess," says a senior official of the KLA's political wing who complained about "intense pressure" being placed by US officials on the five rebel negotiators to compromise.
And in one sign of a debate to come, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Gusarov said yesterday ground troops would not be needed to enforce any peace deal to which the two sides agreed.
The ethnic Albanian and Serb delegations were being housed on different floors of the palace and a news blackout was imposed. Mediators planned to shuttle between the sides, hoping to eventually convene face-to-face talks.
"There is not going to be any free time. No one is planning to play volleyball or Ping-Pong...," said US diplomat and lead negotiator Christopher Hill yesterday.
Mr. Hill and his partners Wolfgang Petritsch, Austria's envoy to Belgrade, and Boris Mayorsky, a senior Russian diplomat, were determined to confine the parties to the castle and its wooded parklands until an accord was reached. Their model is the 1995 conference held at a US Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, that concluded the accord ending the war in Bosnia.
"These will not be conventional negotiations, and they will not be easy," Mrs. Albright said in a speech last Thursday in Washington at the US Institute for Peace.
The biggest obstacle is Kosovo's status at the end of the interim period. The Serbs, who cherish Kosovo as the birthplace of their culture and Christian Orthodox faith, are backed by the US and its partners in rejecting independence for the province.
There will also be quarrels over the degree of autonomy it receives. Belgrade rejects the framework for negotiations approved by the Contact Group - the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy - that would essentially end Belgrade's control over the province's internal affairs. Kosovo would have its own parliament, government, and court system. Belgrade would eventually also have to withdraw virtually all federal troops and police, who would be replaced by an ethnic Albanian-dominated police force.