The going at the Kosovo peace talks may be tough already, but it is likely to get even harder when they move on to the proposed deployment of NATO peacekeepers in Serbia's strife-torn southern province.
NATO planners are putting the final touches to a mission of between 20,000 and 30,000 troops should the conference succeed in securing a proposed interim three-year accord on self-rule for Kosovo. The United States says it is seriously considering contributing as many as 4,000 soldiers.
Western diplomats believe that winning the approval of Serbian and ethnic Albanian negotiators on the operational rules of a NATO mission could be much more difficult than securing the political agreement. And one of the three mediators, Russia, opposes such a deployment. Yet with just nine days left to complete the talks, pressure is mounting to open the issue.
Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is the dominant republic, rejects a NATO deployment as a breach of its sovereignty that it vows to resist by force. The US says NATO will launch airstrikes against the Serbs unless they relent. Belgrade also faces a threat of NATO bombing if it blocks a peace accord.
Kosovo's 2 million majority ethnic Albanians want the strongest NATO force possible to deter new onslaughts by Serbian troops and police on civilians that since last February have left hundreds dead, scores of villages destroyed, and tens of thousands of refugees.
International mediators, however, are concerned that ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) could use NATO troops as shields from behind which to continue fighting for independence from iron-fisted Serbian rule. The proposed accord would end Serbia's control of the province but deny it independence.
The mediators want ironclad commitments on the disarming of the KLA - and Serbian paramilitaries - and withdrawals of Serbian police and troops. The White House, facing deep congressional opposition to US participation, is demanding the most "permissive environment" possible for the peacekeepers.
But there are other factors driving a decision to delay until late in the talks the haggling on a NATO operation, the terms of which are in Annex 1 (A) of the draft accord. Also being withheld from the sides for now is Annex 2, which outlines a withdrawal of most Serbian forces and the creation of ethnic Albanian-dominated police units.
To begin with there is the brittle relationship between NATO and Russia, which with the US and European Union is mediating the conference that entered its sixth day Thursday.
Still smarting over NATO's decision to expand, Moscow opposes the US-led pact's involvement in Kosovo, reflecting what many experts regard as a policy of trying to restrain the influence of the world's sole superpower. Experts also believe the Kremlin is anxious to avoid setting a precedent that might one day open the door to foreign intervention if one of its ethnic crises were to threaten the stability of nearby NATO members.
"We are firm believers in a political settlement, and only a political settlement of the crisis," insists Russian mediator Boris Mayorsky.
France, eager to maintain smooth relations with its historic rival, bowed to Russian sensitivities, urging that a political framework be nailed down before bargaining begins on a NATO force. It also insisted that a NATO delegation be kept out of Rambouillet. The US, also beset by problems in its relations with Moscow yet open to Russian participation in the Kosovo peacekeeping force, agreed.
"We don't want to jeopardize in advance the negotiations by putting on the table the question ... of a NATO military force," says a French diplomatic source. "We want to first reach a political settlement."
But the decision has provoked concern among some experts, who cite the key hand NATO had in drafting the provisions of the peacekeeping mission deployed under the 1995 Dayton peace deal on Bosnia. They see the lack of such involvement at Rambouillet as a bid by the Clinton administration to assuage French ambivalence to what French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine calls American "hyperpower."
NATO's lack of involvement at the talks "is due to the absence of American leadership," asserts Jim Hooper of the Washington, D.C.-based Balkans Action Council, an advocacy group. "NATO's presence inside Rambouillet would offend the Serbs, Russians, and French."
Finally, Kosovo would represent a major challenge for NATO as it prepares to hold in April a 50th-anniversary summit at which it is to debate its role in the 21st century. "In many ways, this is a test of the future," says Simon Serfaty, an expert on European security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The US and its 15 allies - to become 18 at the summit - want to know that the chances for a solid peace deal are good before fully committing to a second Balkan peacekeeping mission. A debacle in Kosovo would represent a profound humiliation and reignite doubts about NATO's post-cold-war purpose.
Furthermore, Kosovo will be another test of an Anglo-French proposal for European-only NATO missions, part of a strategy to give Europe a bigger say in its own security. The proposed peacekeeping force would be dominated by British and French troops and commanded by a British general. The concept is already being tested with the deployment in Macedonia of a 2,300- strong Anglo-French force, whose job it would be to rescue 800 international civilian monitors in Kosovo if they are endangered.