Talk still drowned out by combat's roar

Diplomats revive the idea of a non-NATO-led force for Kosovo. Will

Peace moves to end Kosovo's crisis whirl about as the United Nations, Washington, Germany, and Russia separately try to force diplomacy into gear.

But they seem to offer little to stop the war for now.

With their initiatives driven in part by looming elections, American and Russian policymakers are playing more to domestic pressures than seriously trying to break the deadlock. The UN can only meekly demur from the sidelines, having been shunted aside by NATO's unilateral decision to bomb Yugoslavia.

Although it appears that the various diplomatic motions are inching toward common ground, the fundamentals make prospects for a solution dim at present.

The Clinton administration, with public opinion polls in its favor, seems to want to continue the bombing. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, his popular support only deepened by more than three weeks of airstrikes, shows no signs of compromising. "There's a lot of diplomatic activity that doesn't seem to be leading to much," says one Western diplomat who requested anonymity.

After freezing relations with NATO over the bombing of fellow Slav ally Yugoslavia, Russia has come to agree with the West on one point: Mr. Milosevic's soldiers should withdraw while an international peacekeeping force moves into Kosovo to oversee the safe return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians.

But the makeup of the force is a source of bitter contention, and no one knows if Milosevic would even accept the idea.

The basis for discussion is a German proposal unveiled this week, which involves NATO's suspending bombing for at least 24 hours to allow Yugoslav forces to withdraw from Kosovo. Meanwhile, an international force would protect returning refugees. The plan also calls for disarming Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels, who are fighting for independence for the Serbian province.

The force would perhaps operate under a UN mandate and would include troops from Russia. NATO would end its campaign only when all Yugoslav troops and paramilitary forces have left Kosovo. It would be modeled loosely on the international stabilization force under UN mandate but NATO control in Bosnia - a force Russia has threatened to quit.

For any plan to work, says NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, Russia must be drawn "on board" to serve as a go-between with Milosevic. Outraged by the airstrikes and humiliated by its loss of superpower status, Russia would relish a high-profile role as mediator.

But it will only sell an idea to Milosevic that it believes in - and Russia rejects Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's insistence that NATO head an international force.

Moscow says any force must be nonmilitary, operating under the flag of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the UN.

Observers say that despite daily telephone consultations between Ms. Albright and Russia's foreign minister, President Boris Yeltsin cannot be seen to be cooperating too closely with NATO while pressure rises at home to arm Yugoslavia.

Besides, Russian officials who know Milosevic well say Washington has underestimated the man's intransigence.

"The Americans don't get it. There is absolutely no way Milosevic is going to accept a NATO presence in Kosovo," says a high-ranking Russian official who declined to be identified. "He might accept Swedes or Indians or us. But not NATO."

Even if Milosevic were to accept peacekeepers, various diplomats here question whether he would agree to the implicit partition of Kosovo province. And which would come first, suspension of airstrikes or withdrawal of Yugoslav troops? And is Milosevic even willing to talk? Would he cooperate if the peacekeepers were deployed? Or attack Kosovo again once they withdrew?

Several Western diplomats privately say they believe Albright is being too hawkish, emboldened by public support for the Balkans campaign at home. "Albright seems to think taking the tough line is the best. The reality is that Milosevic doesn't seem to be breaking down," says another Western diplomat who also declined to be identified.

ONE heartening sign for diplomacy was President Yeltsin's appointment of former premier Viktor Chernomyrdin as his new Balkans negotiator. Although the move was motivated by domestic intrigue - to sideline the current prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, as a threat to Yeltsin - it was welcomed across the board by Russian media.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow yesterday, Mr. Chernomyrdin voiced support in principle for the German initiative. "We have to back a peaceful way out of this crisis and what Germany is proposing ... to stop all military action for at least 24 hours and look for compromises, deserves attention."

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