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Sunday, 19 March, 2000, 12:37 GMT
Rambouillet talks 'designed to fail'
Rambouillet talks
Negotiators laboured for several weeks
Almost a year after Nato's Kosovo campaign, diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason examines whether 11th-hour peace talks to avert the conflict were actually designed to fail from the outset.

Kosovo: Special Report
The meetings were an attempt to get Serb and Albanian delegations to sign up to an agreement giving Kosovo substantial self-government.

But they collapsed over President Milosevic's refusal to allow a Nato-led force to guarantee the process, prompting the final brief countdown to Nato air strikes on Yugoslavia.

We have sent the parties an unmistakeable message - get serious

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
The summoning of the peace conference at the ancient Chateau of Rambouillet near Paris was triggered in part by the Racak massacre of 40 Albanian villagers by Serb police in January 1999.

Five exasperated western powers and Russia gave the two sides three weeks to reach agreement.

The American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, warned that simply showing up at Rambouillet "is not going to be good enough".

"We have sent the parties an unmistakeable message - get serious," she said.

'Rare' chance

A few days later, the French President, Jacques Chirac, told the opening session of the conference that it was one of those rare moments when history was in the hands of a few, in this case those who were about to sit down around the negotiating table.

Although direct negotiations and direct talks would have been the preferred thing, it was practically impossible

EU negotiator Wolfgang Petritsch
Except that they were not about to.

The European Union negotiator, Wolfgang Petritsch, told me how he and his American and Russian colleagues shuffled between Serbs and Albanians inside the Chateau of Rambouillet.

"It was clear from the outset that although direct negotiations and direct talks would have been the preferred thing, it was practically impossible," he said.

Asked if he meant that had the opposing parties been brought together, the talks would have just collapsed, Mr Petritsch said: "Yes. There would not have been a realistic chance for one sane sentence."

'Killer clause'

Outside the chateau, Kosovo Albanians chanted slogans in support of the guerrillas of the KLA - and for independence, which was not on offer.

Pro-Albanian protest outside the talks
Outside the talks, demonstrators pressed their demands...
The Serbs at first looked more likely than the Albanians to agree to a plan for self-government. But they dug in their heels on the Nato-led implementation force.

The military text allowed Nato forces freedom of movement not only in Kosovo but throughout Serbia.

The political-military analyst, Michael Mccgwire, formerly at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes Nato inserted this clause deliberately to make sure the peace conference failed.

"It was ... almost certain it was going to fail as a result of the insistence that it would be Nato doing everything, and that this command structure would run right the way back to Nato headquarters," he said.

"But in case ... Milosevic did not say this is impossible, they then put in this other thing, which I would say was a killer clause, to make sure that the agreement just was not acceptable."

This is part of the Belgrade propaganda machine raised after the talks, not before the talks

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
But, for the co-chairman of the peace talks - the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, that is nonsense - there was never any intention of Nato troops occupying Serbian territory outside Kosovo.

"Nobody seriously imagined for one minute that was going to happen, the Serb negotiators didn't imagine that was going to happen," he said.

"If that particular technical annexe was something that bothered them, we would have been very happy to have considered constructive amendments from them. They never even raised it.

"The reason they refused to agree to the peace package was that they were not willing to agree to the autonomy for Kosovo, or for that autonomy to be guaranteed by an international military presence at all."

Russian role

The negotiations were complicated by the Russians' refusal to take part in discussion of the military text, though they did not stop it happening.

For the Russian negotiator, Boris Mayorsky, it was a sensitive point.

"It is suggested that the role of Russia in these negotiations is to convince Yugoslavia that they should accept Nato presence as implementation of the agreements we are working on.

Kosovo refugee
...while back in Kosovo people fled the fighting
"Now let me tell you this, that nothing of the kind is happening in the course of these negotiations."

So were the Russians pro-Serb, the Americans and Europeans pro-Albanian? Not true, says Wolfgang Petritsch.

"I was present when the Yugoslavs really hit at Boris Mayorsky because he was very fair and also very strong on the Yugoslavs when they were impossible.

"On the other hand, I must tell you, Chris Hill and I, we were very tough on the Albanians, because there was one major and crucial issue - that we were asking for the total dismantlement and demilitarisation of the KLA."

In the end, of course, the Albanians signed. They had to, the Americans said quite openly, so that the Serbs could be blamed for the breakdown and moves towards military action begun.

It was not, in the end, a peace conference with much room for real negotiation.

The Serbs would not accept a Nato force; Nato on its 50th anniversary wanted to show it mattered - and only one outcome was possible.

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06 Mar 00 | Europe
Tension grows on Kosovo border
25 Feb 00 | Europe
Kosovo: What happened to peace?
04 Feb 00 | Europe
Analysis: What went wrong?
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