D-Day for NATO in Kosovo

Whether this week's critical peace talks fail or succeed, Westernalliance appears set to act on Yugoslav province.

Last week was a moment of triumph for NATO as three former Soviet-bloc nations joined the alliance. This week, NATO's future as the peacekeeper of Europe - and perhaps beyond - may be on the verge of a failure.

Talks to end the Kosovo conflict are down to the wire, and even US envoy Richard Holbrooke, who brokered peace for Bosnia, failed last week to persuade Serbia to accept NATO troops as part of a Kosovo peace plan. And the United States has so far failed to persuade Kosovo's ethnic Albanians to sign a deal, which stymied the West's strategy to threaten Serbs with airstrikes.

American and European officials publicly stress that the renewed negotiations in Paris could seal a deal between the two parties. But diplomats confide that they have become exasperated with both sides.

A likely scenario, says one Western diplomat, "is that nothing will happen and we'll continue begging the Albanians and threatening the Serbs - while the killing goes on in Kosovo."

"The best scenario," says the diplomat, "is that both sides will sign, and then we'll spend the next three months arguing over how troops will come in."

Already 2,000 have died and more than 300,000 have been driven from their homes in the course of the year-long war. Six people were killed over the weekend when three bombs exploded, and, according to international observers, Serbian forces burned ethnic Albanian-owned houses in the northwestern town of Vucitrn - apparently in retaliation for the killing last week of two Serbs near there.

The peace plan, put forth by US envoy Christopher Hill, would give the southern Serbian province of Kosovo broad autonomy - and require some 28,000 NATO peacekeeping troops to enforce it. Ethnic Albanians make up about 90 percent of the population.

By all indications, the ethnic Albanians, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), are close to agreeing to the proposal. Moderates favor acceptance. But hard-liners, including top KLA commanders, object to a requirement that they disarm within six months while a small number of Serbian forces could remain in Kosovo.

The Albanians' greatest reservations stem from a profound distrust of the US and its mediating partners, rooted in their repeated failures to follow through on threats to use force to halt Serbian onslaughts against civilians in Kosovo. "Most Albanians have lost their trust in everybody," says an influential KLA member. "Look at how Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky. He can't be believed."

The hard-liners are especially concerned that if they sign, the Contact Group - the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia - will then entertain demands for extensive changes, which the KLA would then be pressured to accept. The change they fear the most is downgrading the NATO-led peacekeeping force to a much weaker international presence.

The Serbs, meanwhile, remain strongly opposed to letting foreign troops enter the region, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, and have stepped up attacks on what they term "American aggression."

"The US is forcing us to accept an agreement that is against our country," says Vuk Draskovic, a Serbian vice premier. "By insisting on [NATO troops as part of] a political settlement, the US is trying to build a house from the roof down."

Although the threat of airstrikes has hung over Mr. Milosevic since October, the international community has been backing away from such tactics in recent weeks because of its own internal dissent. The strongest holdout has been Russia, an ethnic and religious cousin of Serbia. The US House of Representatives, however, voted Thursday to support US troops in Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force.

As the Serbs head back to the negotiating table, there are expectations that Belgrade could go along with a Russian-inspired strategy: It may accept the political provisions of the plan that give Kosovo self-rule, but demand further talks on the security annexes in a bid to eliminate the NATO mission. Such a move would be aimed at making Belgrade seem cooperative, thereby weakening the US case among the already-reluctant European allies for NATO airstrikes.

A senior State Department official says such a strategy would fail. "I don't think they will be offered the opportunity to sign one element of the agreement," he says. "It can only be concluded in its entirety."

One possibility is that the US and Europe could lift some economic sanctions against the Yugoslavs if they agree to the plan. But Kosovo has been Milosevic's rallying call for a decade, and small financial incentives are thought to be insufficient to turn the tables.

"The fact is, Milosevic's decision will be what helps him maintain power, not the struggle for territorial integrity," says Iljia Djukic, a respected foreign diplomacy expert in Belgrade. "The people are afraid of bombing, but Milosevic is not."

Some critics find the proposal itself to be unrealistic. "It's absurd that Kosovo can become democratic through this process," says Milan St. Protic, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Balkan Studies in Belgrade. "It's among the least emancipated places in the region, and it's between Serbia and [the country of] Albania. It's in the middle of the storm."

*Staff writer Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.

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