Ending the war: down to details

Milosevic accepts West's demands. But timing of Serb retreat remains

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has made major concessions in the Kosovo peace deal he has accepted, but he may also have secured some important gains, making it uncertain that an end to the crisis is imminent.

The Serbian parliament, which is firmly under the control of Mr. Milosevic, voted yesterday to accept the peace principles put forth by Russia and the seven leading industrial nations. The plan calls for a "complete verifiable withdrawal of all [Yugoslav] military, police, and paramilitary forces" from Kosovo. It also calls for the introduction of "an international security presence with the essential involvement of NATO."

But Western officials have been hesitant to hail the agreement as a breakthrough, saying they want to see if Milosevic holds to his word.

In addition to proving to the international community that he is serious about peace talks, Milosevic will face the challenge of explaining the shift in stance to the Serbian people. He had repeatedly said he would never allow foreign troops in Kosovo.

Milosevic's government agreed to the proposal after more than 70 days of NATO bombing, in which 40 bridges and much of the country's infrastructure have been destroyed.

"The government could have accepted this before the war," says Dragan Veselinov, a member of parliament. "Our government acted with complete historical irresponsibility."

If followed through upon, the plan would allow hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees to return to their homes.

Western officials say they will not stop the bombing until they can verify that Milosevic is really withdrawing his troops. A partial troop withdrawal had been announced several weeks ago, but no significant movements occurred.

The proposal was delivered to Milosevic Wednesday by Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin and European Union representative Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish president. Mr. Ahtisaari left Belgrade yesterday afternoon to brief Western leaders on his talks with Milosevic.

Although Milosevic made major concessions in accepting the plan, he also appears to have won significant gains that will ensure that he retains his grip on power, which many analysts and Western officials say will ensure continued instability in the Balkans. It will also give him bargaining room on deciding Kosovo's fate.

With the plan rejecting the ethnic Albanians' demand for independence, Milosevic can boast that he has succeeded in keeping the province part of Serbia. Furthermore, while calling for "an essential NATO participation," the plan will leave it to the United Nations Security Council to decide the exact composition of the peacekeeping force.

NATO is demanding that it make up the bulk of the contingent and hold overall command. But with permanent members Russia and China sympathetic to Belgrade, the US and its allies will now be forced to negotiate both issues.

Sources in Belgrade say the parliament vote is more than just an acceptance of NATO's core demands. It also represents a significant shift in Yugoslav politics that will be played out in the coming months.

According to the sources, Milosevic met early yesterday morning with other political leaders and agreed to soften the alignment of the government.

He is likely to try to make amends with the West, which will be necessary for him to stay in power and get financing for rebuilding the country.

"I'm not ready to underestimate Milosevic's capabilities," says an opposition politician. "He can't be avoided in the next negotiations."

The international war crimes tribunal recently indicted Milosevic for spearheading the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. It is not known if Western leaders will sign a deal with him or even try to have him arrested if he leaves Yugoslavia.

The one major party to vote against the peace proposal was the Serbian Radical Party, headed by ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj.

Just after the brief parliamentary session, Seselj told reporters that his party "will certainly not wait in the government for the eventual entrance of aggressor [NATO] troops."

"This is just one phase in the attack against Serbs," he said.

Analysts predict that the Radicals will be forced out of the government and more moderate leaders will be given greater importance.

"The most important part of [the parliamentary vote] is the position of the Radicals," says a political analyst in Belgrade. "If they are really against this, and they don't change their position, they will need to be expelled from the government."

One political party that is expected to take on a greater role in the government is the Serbian Renewal Movement, headed by Vuk Draskovic. Although he was kicked out of the government last month, he was significantly seated next to Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic during yesterday's session.

"[My party] will fight for peace," Mr. Draskovic said. "We have to build our future with Europe."

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