Hanging over the final days of the Kosovo peace negotiations in France is the so-far-unspoken issue of international sanctions that have throttled the economy of Yugoslavia.
Western diplomats, including many American officials, see Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to allow NATO peacekeeping troops in Kosovo as a bargaining chip that he wants to trade for relief from sanctions.
Should he persist in such brinkmanship, the United States and its partners would face a hard choice when the new deadline for reaching a political accord in Rambouillet, France, expires Tuesday at 3 p.m.
On one hand, they could make a deal with the progenitor of four wars since 1991 in order to save the accord on self-rule for Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority; doing so would end fighting that threatens to escalate into a war that could engulf the region.
Or, they could make good on their pledge to launch NATO airstrikes that could doom any chance for a negotiated settlement and mark the alliance's first attack on a sovereign state.
Western diplomats say most European governments favor some kind of broad sanctions relief for Mr. Milosevic; Russia has openly called for ending them. The Clinton administration has indicated it may be willing to consider lifting measures, such as a ban on foreign investments and landing rights for the Yugoslav national airlines, imposed last June after Belgrade persisted in onslaughts against civilians in Kosovo, a province of Serbia.
But the Clinton administration does not appear ready to lift what is known as the "outer wall" of sanctions that include bans on Belgrade rejoining international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These measures were imposed for Milosevic's sponsorship of the Bosnian Serb uprising in 1992.
Many experts believe Milosevic is deeply anxious to win sanctions relief. It would not only help him to begin reviving an economy that has all but collapsed, threatening potential social upheaval. It would also allow him to show a tangible benefit for a decision to renege on his vow never to allow foreign troops into Kosovo, which Serbs cherish as the cradle of their medieval empire and Christian Orthodox faith.
"I personally think Milosevic will let NATO come, or, more probably, let them strike for a day or two, then surrender," says Nejbosa Spaic, the director of the independent Media Center in Belgrade. "[Milosevic] is saying he will never let NATO come. When they come, [the Serbian people] will think their government did everything they could to prevent intervention."
Western leaders have repeatedly threatened military action against whichever of the two sides they judged responsible for any breakdown in the talks, aimed at ending a year of violence in Kosovo. If there is no deal by Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana "will draw the appropriate conclusions," US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Saturday night. Some 430 NATO warplanes, including 260 US jets, are on standby around southern Europe.
The draft peace agreement before the Serb and Albanian Kosovar separatists envisages a three-year interim period during which Kosovo would have substantial autonomy within Yugoslav borders. It calls for the withdrawal of most Serbian troops from the province, and for the disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) separatist guerrillas. As many as 30,000 NATO troops, including some 4,000 Americans, would enforce the agreement.
But on Saturday, Ms. Albright and her European colleagues seemed short on optimism for the talks' success. "We are still a long, long way away from agreement" on the military aspects of a NATO deployment, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook acknowledged. "Nobody is promising that ... at 4 o'clock next Tuesday we will have a new and happy story to tell."
There are no plans at the moment to send an envoy to Belgrade to try to persuade the Yugoslav leader in face-to-face talks, officials say. Milosevic refused to meet the leading US negotiator, Christopher Hill, when he flew to Belgrade Friday.
Yugoslav leaders have rejected the proposed NATO force as a violation of their country's sovereignty. "If the agreement is a good one, why do we need troops to implement it?" asked Milan Milutinovic, president of Serbia on Saturday. "We are a sovereign country, and we do not need anyone to provide guarantees."
In the past few days, mid-level Serbian leaders have hinted that they would more likely accept either United Nations troops or armed civilians from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which already has a more than 1,000-strong verification mission in Kosovo.
But backed by the Western members of the six-nation Contact Group, which has been mediating between the Serb and ethnic Albanian delegations, the Kosovar Albanians are insisting on a NATO force to protect them.
Albright is staying on at the talks at Rambouillet, a 14th-century castle 30 miles west of Paris, to try to persuade the Albanian team to accept the political agreement. Sources close to their delegation said they were still demanding a clause promising some sort of vote on independence after three years, but had given up earlier hopes of a pledge to hold a referendum.
One provision of the new draft constitution that has deeply angered Albanian negotiators is the creation of a second Assembly chamber in which any ethnic group that constituted 0.5 percent of Kosovo's population could have representatives.
*Justin Brown contributed from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.