For Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, there is more at stake in the Kosovo peace talks than just territory.
Under a provision in the plan now being discussed in Rambouillet, France, Mr. Milosevic and the upper echelon of his leadership could become vulnerable to war-crimes prosecution - something they have skillfully avoided since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
International officials this week hinted that if the war-crimes tribunal from The Hague were given complete access to investigate mass killings in Kosovo, blame could climb to the top of the highly centralized Yugoslav government. It is widely thought that the Serbian forces who have fought in Kosovo for the past year have done little without explicit approval from Belgrade - and Milosevic.
Some 2,000 people have been killed in Kosovo, 300,000 driven from their homes, and scores of villages have been shelled and burned. Most of the victims have been independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
"Any person who has some ability to control what happens would be looked at closely," says Graham Blewitt, a deputy prosecutor for the tribunal who is involved in prosecuting Yugoslav war criminals.
Ethnic Albanians, whom Serb officials have accused of committing massacres, could also face the scrutiny of the tribunal. As is the case with the Serbs, accusations could reach the upper ranks of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has taken on a greater leadership role in recent months.
A little-publicized part of the peace plan would grant the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in The Hague, full access to Kosovo. It would also require Yugoslav authorities to extradite three accused war criminals from the 1991 siege of Vukovar, Croatia, in which some 260 non-Serbs were allegedly executed.
The Kosovo peace plan that Western diplomats are trying to force on the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians has yet to be approved, and it may change. Negotiations have been extended for a second week, with a Feb. 20 deadline set. In the event the talks fail, NATO is gearing up for military intervention.
Regardless of the outcome, there is likely to be increasing pressure on Yugoslavia to abide by the international court.
So far Belgrade officials have refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the tribunal, saying their federal law does not allow extradition and the tribunal is politically motivated. Last week they ignored a deadline to extradite the "Vukovar three," and a month ago chief prosecutor Louise Arbour was prevented from entering the country and leading an investigation into the killing of 45 ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak.
Yugoslav officials have said they will allow Ms. Arbour into Kosovo only if she is escorted by state officials, and only in a vague "fact finding" capacity.
"As a rule, these kinds of institutions [like the war-crimes tribunal] are political, not legal," says Yugoslav Justice Minister Zoran Knezevic, who accused ICTY of being biased against Serbs and favoring Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians.
But analysts here say there may be more to Yugoslav resistance to the tribunal than concerns to uphold their constitution. The country already suffers heavily from noncompliance with The Hague relating to Croatia and Bosnia, which is cited by the United States as a reason to prevent Yugoslavia from getting much-needed loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The Yugoslavs may be willing to swallow even greater sanctions to prevent investigations in Kosovo, which may have much broader implications.
"Milosevic is very afraid because Kosovo is not in the territory of Bosnia or Croatia; it's Yugoslavia," says Natasa Kantic, the executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "For the tribunal, just showing the level of destruction in Kosovo is enough for some accusations. Enough evidence exists in Kosovo [to implicate] Milosevic, the police, and the Yugoslav Army."
Already telephone intercepts obtained by US officials reportedly show that Federal Vice President Nikola Sainovic directed the attack on ethnic Albanians in Racak and tried to cover it up.
But whether Milosevic is ever tried for war crimes depends on the outcome of Rambouillet and the resolve of the international community, which has yet to arrest Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the leading war-crimes suspects from the Serbian republic in Bosnia.
Established by the UN Security Council in 1993, the tribunal's authority has been under question. Although it has had some success in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, officials doubt it could ever gain jurisdiction in a Western country, should that become necessary.
"Perhaps the Yugoslav case is understandable," says an international official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The US would never let them in, nor would any other Western country."
The same reservations are echoed by the Yugoslavs. "There is not a single Serb who would put on a uniform" if he knew that he could be prosecuted by the tribunal, says Mr. Knezevic, the Yugoslav minister of justice. "Tomorrow we could have a situation where they hunt our soldiers and policemen."