Inside the Kosovo peace talks

A bleaker picture emerges than official assessments of how the talksnear Paris are proceeding.

It was like classic good cop, bad cop.

As he and his fellow mediators faced their ethnic Albanian interlocutors, Russian diplomat Boris Mayorsky put his foot down. They would not convey a demand to the Serbian delegation for an immediate cease-fire, he said, according to sources close to the Kosovo peace talks here.

Intervening before tempers flared, Christopher Hill, the American ambassador to Macedonia, and Austrian envoy Wolfgang Petritsch, representing the European Union (EU), agreed to relay the demand, the sources say.

The exchange, which reportedly occurred Feb. 8 on the second day of the negotiations, offers a glimpse into the complex and tension-fraught effort by the United States, the EU, and Russia to prevent almost a year of fighting in Kosovo from bursting into all-out war that could destabilize the region.

In their first briefing for journalists, the negotiators said Feb. 9 the talks were difficult, but "moving ahead." The sides, they said, have begun picking through, line by line, word by word, a draft three-year interim plan to replace Serbia's decade-long iron-fisted rule of Kosovo with autonomy for its ethnic Albanian majority of 2 million.

"By the end, we will have a settlement that works," Mr. Hill said with optimism. "People will understand what their lives will be like in Kosovo, and everyone will feel comfortable in Kosovo." He said both sides "really are serious."

The mediators refused to discuss specifics of the talks at the Chateau de Rambouillet in line with a news blackout imposed to prevent disclosures that might derail the intricate negotiations.

The only way to obtain information is in circumspect cellular telephone calls - undoubtedly monitored by French intelligence - into the palace, or to people on the outside who are in contact with those locked up in the snow-dusted French presidential retreat. Hill said such leaks were not "a big problem"; Mr. Mayorsky called them "very unhelpful" but "facts of life."

Enough information is emerging to paint a somewhat bleaker picture of the talks than the official assessments. "We are a long way from the beginning yet. I still can't be terribly optimistic," says a Western diplomatic source. One hurdle, he says, is that it is unlikely the Serbian delegates have the authority to make major concessions. Ultimately, he says, it will likely require talks between Yugoslavia's autocratic president, Slobodan Milosevic, the paramount Serbian power broker, and Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who brokered the 1995 Dayton peace accords on Bosnia.

"There is nobody there [in the Serbian delegation] who at the end of the day is going to sign up to anything," says the Western diplomatic source.

Reportedly the Serbs are demanding that the Albanians sign a set of principles, drafted by the international community, that include preserving the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

A source in the general command of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for independence, is even more pessimistic. "The way Hill's plan was drafted," he says, "the negotiations will fail."

He complains that enormous pressure is being exerted on the 15 ethnic Albanian delegates to drop their main demand for a referendum on Kosovo's independence at the end of the three-year interim accord.

The US and its partners, and Yugoslavia - now comprising only Serbia and Montenegro - reject independence for the province. Western governments and Russia say granting it could destabilize other parts of the Balkans, especially Bosnia. Serbs, who make up about 10 percent of Kosovo's population, cherish it as the centuries-old cradle of their culture and Christian Orthodox Church.

The pressure tactics to drop the referendum demand, charges the KLA source, have taken various forms. The five KLA representatives were denied adequate preparation time and their own individual political and legal advisers and translators, he says. The mediators' failure to require an immediate cease-fire by the better-armed Serbs is also aimed at pressuring the ethnic Albanians to compromise, he asserts.

There is psychological pressure, as well, he says. Four KLA negotiators served time in Serbian jails, and being shut away inside the palace "is like being back in a Serbian courtroom for these people," he explains.

He insists such tactics will not work. The mediators "may try to maneuver, but they should know that they are maneuvering with the future of people.... We love peace, but we will continue to fight until we get the right justice."

This much is also known. The delegations are sequestered inside the castle, the stripes on their badges alerting French guards that they are to be stopped from leaving the estate. They work in separate rooms of regal decor, the walls of red and gray marble. But to some the rooms, despite their large size, seem cramped because the delegations are so large.

Meals are taken buffet-style in an ornate dining room of carved wood and high ceilings. The trilling of cellular telephones is constant. There is an excess of officials from the EU, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Contact Group - the US, Italy, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany - which called the talks.

Contrary to widely held expectations, the ethnic Albanians have not resorted to the bickering that many thought would erupt.

Instead, they agreed on a leadership group of Ibrahim Rugova, an advocate of nonviolence and unrecognized "president" of Kosovo; Rexep Qosija, a former Rugova ally; and Hashim Thaci, the KLA's thirtysomething political chief. He was chosen as "coordinator" of the "triumvirate" in a move that appears to reflect the paramount influence of the KLA.

Mr. Thaci was also tapped because he "is the youngest of the group and we are talking about the future," says the general command source.

Advising the ethnic Albanians are private American consultants: Morton Abramowitz, a former ambassador and close friend of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Marshall Harris of the Washington, D.C.-based human rights group Freedom House, a former US diplomat who resigned to protest US policy on Bosnia; and Paul Williams, a former State Department lawyer who teaches law at American University in Washington.

The three were barred by French officials from the talks until Feb. 8. Still, their presence is of little consolation to the KLA. "Why should not each person have, like in a democratic court, a translator, a lawyer, and an adviser?" asks the general staff source.

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