The hopeful note struck June 3 by the announcement of a breakthrough in Kosovo peace negotiations is now barely audible. That should surprise no one who has followed events in the Balkans. That announcement was a prelude to much tougher negotiations over details.
How quickly must the Serb forces be withdrawn? How many of those troops can return to Kosovo after an "international security presence" is established? Must a UN Security Council resolution precede any such "presence"?
These questions are difficult, but resolvable. The agreement by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his parliament to a set of conditions presented by Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari stands. Those conditions are in line with NATO's fundamental goal of reversing the "ethnic cleansing" orchestrated by Mr. Milosevic in Kosovo. They include full withdrawal of Serb forces, though with provision for a small number (hundreds, at most) to return in symbolic recognition of continued Yugoslav sovereignty.
NATO has to stand firm on such points. Belgrade is angling for a larger military presence in Kosovo, but to allow that would discourage Kosovar Albanian refugees from returning to their homes.
The timing of the withdrawal could have some flexibility. Serb commanders have valid concerns about being attacked by Albanian guerrillas, as well as by NATO, as they withdraw. Their path of retreat is complicated by bombed roads and bridges. The logistics can certainly be worked out, however. The key requirement is an agreed-upon mode of withdrawal, one that can be verified by NATO.
And the Security Council resolution? Russia and the G-7 industrial nations are laboring to put one together. The Russians resist a peacekeeping force dominated by NATO, but nothing less is going to bring the refugees home and have enough muscle to prevent outbreaks of violence. Moscow's need to work in harmony with the West should trump its impulse to run interference for Milosevic, who is hoping the UN-related talks may win him a better deal.
Peacekeeping duty in Kosovo is something no NATO country eagerly anticipates. Parts of Kosovo lie devastated. Emotions will run high among returning Kosovars. Disarming Albania guerrillas that have been fighting the Serbs, and gaining some ground of late, will take extraordinary patience and courage. But it's part of the peace framework.
Some critics in Washington and elsewhere may see appeasement of Milosevic in this still fragile peace process. That's hard to credit. NATO's air campaign continues until the Serb pullout verifiably commences. Milosevic is left with a few symbols of sovereignty but no real control in Kosovo. NATO peacekeepers, already gathering at Kosovo's border, are preparing to move in.
It will be hard for Milosevic to reap any glory from this, though he'll undoubtedly try. Serbia's people should recognize that, yet again, their highly nationalistic leader has brought nothing but harm to their nation.