Ever a player at brinkmanship, Slobodan Milosevic appears to be maneuvering for better Kosovo peace terms by holding up implementation of the NATO-backed plan he accepted last week.
The Yugoslav president may hope that the longer he holds out, the better his chances that Russia, China, and other sympathetic states can help him win an improved deal, including his demand that thousands of Serbian troops remain in Kosovo.
NATO's plan requires a pullout of all his forces, effectively ending the Serbs' control over a province they see as their historic heartland.
"The reality remains that if Serb forces leave Kosovo, Serbia loses Kosovo and everyone understands that, including Milosevic and the VJ [Yugoslav Army]," says Louis Sell, a former diplomat who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"It is a most difficult thing for Mr. Milosevic to make a concession in this matter," said Hungarian President Arpad Goncz during a visit in Washington. "It is also a hard thing for NATO to make a concession in this direction."
By obtaining concessions such as maintaining a Serbian security presence in Kosovo, Mr. Milosevic could better cast as a personal victory an accord authorizing a NATO peacekeeping operation, something he vowed never to do. By doing so would help defuse any backlash by his destitute and battered people that could threaten his grip on power, United States officials and experts say.
"What he is playing for right now is the best deal possible, and only he knows what those parameters are," says a senior US military official.
A government official in Serbia offers another reason for the delaying tactics: The regime is working to cover up evidence of the mass murder and other war crimes against Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians for which Milosevic and his top lieutenants have been indicted. "Milosevic wants more time so he can hide 'ethnic cleansing' crimes in Kosovo," says the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If buying time is Milosevic's strategy, it could easily backfire. Widespread popular relief in Serbia that greeted the announcement of the peace deal last week could turn into outrage at the regime as NATO continues its airstrikes. The bombing will also wreak further destruction on the Yugoslav Army to the advantage of ethnic Albanian rebels pushing into Kosovo from bases in Albania.
Furthermore, many experts believe that Russia and China could begin losing patience with Milosevic the longer he obfuscates. They point out that they have greater interests in repairing soured relations with the US and its allies than going to the mat for Milosevic.
Still, Russia's efforts to promote a settlement favorable to the Yugoslav leader is deeply frustrating US officials. Says a senior American official: "Their entire approach was wrong. They should have used their influence in the region to broker some kind of change rather than be a broker for a war criminal."
The challenge for the US and its allies, officials and experts say, is maintaining their fragile unity. That unity seems to be holding in the face of the collapse Sunday of talks between NATO and the Yugoslav Army on a timetable for implementing the peace deal's requirement for a withdrawal from Kosovo of all Serbian troops, police, and paramilitary gangs.
In Bonn, foreign ministers of the G-7 nations - the US, Britain, France, Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany - and Russia worked Monday to draft a United Nations resolution authorizing a NATO-led peacekeeping operation.
Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the European Union envoy who presented the plan to Milosevic in Belgrade last Thursday, told US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the Yugoslav leader affirmed in a telephone conversation that he still accepted the deal. "Milosevic says he intends to go forward with the agreement," State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters.
But the alliance was taking no chances, blaming Milosevic for the collapse of the talks on the Serbian pullout timetable and intensifying its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. "There has been no movement by the Yugoslav military toward implementation of the agreement," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea in Brussels. "Instead we have some proposals from the Yugoslav side that, if accepted, would fail to guarantee the safe return of the refugees."
Alliance commanders also forged ahead with planning for a ground invasion of Kosovo should continued intransigence and the approaching winter make it become necessary.
Nato officials point out that the 50,000-strong NATO peacekeeping contingent being deployed in Macedonia and Albania under the peace plan could easily be transformed into the vanguard of an invasion force.
"All the other options for concluding this conflict are still on that table and are still the subject of preparation and planning," British Defense Secretary George Robertson said in London.
In Washington, an administration official noted that the possibility of Milosevic reneging on the deal accounted for President Clinton's cautious reaction. "It's not a surprise. It's almost expected." But he warned, "With every passing day ... the reality is that preparations for troops going in anyway is in motion."
He said NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels would approve within "the next 48 hours" an "activation order" directing alliance members to prepare to deploy troops into Kosovo as a peacekeeping force. But he added that "if things don't pan out, it's realistic to see that by the end of next week, there will be a substantial military presence [in Albania and Macedonia] that will be able to take a number of courses of action."
The US is providing 7,000 soldiers to the peacekeeping operation, but has thousands of others in the region working on refugee relief operations who could be called upon to participate in an invasion.