Dubious guarantor of Kosovo peace Milosevic backs down but still controls future of Serbian province

October 14, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Once again, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has proved himself the master of Balkan brinkmanship.

The stocky survivor who ignited ethnic hatred and unleashed wars at the moment of his country's disintegration brought the most powerful forces in the world to the edge before getting the West to settle for Band-Aids instead of bombs to avoid conflict in Kosovo.

Even as U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke declared yesterday that "the crisis remains" in the embattled Serbian province, it appeared that Milosevic had again averted catastrophe by reaching a last-ditch compromise to end bloodshed while blunting the threat of NATO bombardment.

Milosevic agreed to withdraw troops, allow compliance observers on the ground and in the air, and open political talks with ethnic Albanian leaders.

The Milosevic government announced last night an 11-point plan to restore peace in Kosovo, including elections in the province within nine months, establishment of a local police force reflecting the community's ethnic diversity and amnesty for those not charged with war crimes.

But the prospects for a long-term peace remain unclear in Kosovo, where hundreds have been killed and more than 250,000 people have been displaced since February, when Serbian security forces launched a campaign to crush the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Kosovo remains a lit fuse, much like Bosnia, where thousands of soldiers, including Americans, oversee an uncertain peace hammered out by Milosevic and Holbrooke in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995.

"Milosevic is becoming a guarantor of a sequence of potential crisis points," said Milan Protic, a Serbian political analyst. "He is going to be like one of those crazy criminals who puts all the bombs on himself and threatens to blow it up so nobody would dare touch him."

Milosevic must sign two key verification agreements by Saturday to head off NATO airstrikes, for which an "activation order" remains in force. But for all the military might brought to bear in a carefully scripted campaign to get Milosevic to the table, the Yugoslav leader drove a hard bargain.

Free access for observers

Milosevic agreed to allow 2,000 unarmed civilian observers to verify a United Nations-backed settlement that includes a cease-fire and the safe return of refugees. The observers will be directed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They will be allowed free access throughout the province, coordinate relief efforts, help refugees return to their homes and supervise elections.

Milosevic promised to permit noncombat NATO aircraft to fly verification missions in Yugoslav airspace. Serbian air defenses will be removed from Kosovo or be stored in designated areas, according to national security adviser Samuel R. Berger, who was speaking in Washington.

Milosevic also agreed to withdraw Serbian security forces from Kosovo, but there were no specifics on numbers of troops or heavy weapons that would have to be removed.

U.S. officials in Belgrade and Washington dodged questions on the issue of Serbian forces.

"What we're talking about here is not words but compliance on the ground in Kosovo," Holbrooke said.

But Milosevic held on to his biggest bargaining chip on Kosovo: He can still negotiate its political future.

"We didn't reach agreements on the future of Kosovo," Holbrooke said.

Milosevic bowed to the United Nations in promising to hammer out a framework for talks with ethnic Albanian leaders over the political future of the province.

The fractured ethnic Albanian leadership is united on only one thing: independence for Kosovo. But Milosevic has indicated he would never allow that, and the NATO allies do not support independence for Kosovo.

Though ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1 in the province, Kosovo is regarded as the cradle of Serbian nationalism and is home to many historic churches, monasteries and battlefields that figure prominently in the nationalist passion.

Milosevic talks only of restoring the political autonomy the province enjoyed before a 1989 crackdown that many now view as a springboard to the wars of the 1990s that tore apart Yugoslavia.

Rare TV appearance

In a rare television appearance yesterday, Milosevic began selling the agreement, saying the pact helped "avert the danger of a military intervention against our country."

He added: "Our task is to accelerate the political process and economic recovery of our country as a whole."

Again, he emerged as Yugoslavia's indispensable leader.

"Milosevic is the man who stood up and managed to save the country from nasty NATO bombing. That must surely consolidate his power," said James Gow, a lecturer at the Department of War Studies at Kings College in London.

But the deal did not appear to go down well in Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina.

Adem Demaci, a political leader who often speaks for the KLA, praised NATO's show of strength but said he was disappointed that the observers would be unarmed and doubted that Milosevic would keep his word.

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