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Saturday, February 13, 1999 Published at 18:44 GMT

Kosovo talks: Half-way to a deal?

Stroll in the Rambouillet park in between talks

By South East Europe Analyst Gabriel Partos

As the peace talks on Kosovo enter their second and almost certainly final week, Serbian officials and Kosovar Albanian representatives have re-stated a number of preconditions - unacceptable to the other side - without which they say they will not sign up to a deal.

Kosovo Section
The two sides' continuing hardline pronouncements have been a disappointment to the organisers of the Rambouillet peace conference - the six-power Contact Group which is due to decide whether sufficient progress has been made to warrant a second week of talks.

Minimal progress so far

The signs that have emerged from behind the wall of a media black-out at Rambouillet suggest that progress during the first week has been minimal.

This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad omen for the outcome of the peace conference.

[ image: Media: Trying to find out what goes on behind closed chateau gates]
Media: Trying to find out what goes on behind closed chateau gates
At Dayton, during the Bosnian peace conference, some of the most contentious issues were resolved only in the final few hours -- after three weeks of hard bargaining.

During his visit to Rambouillet on Thursday, the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, made the point that he had expected most of the agreement to emerge in the final 24 hours.

However, Mr Cook also expressed his dissatisfaction with Belgrade for its insistence that both parties should sign a statement of principles agreed before the talks which includes guarantees that the deal under discussion does not pose a threat to the borders of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

According to Mr Cook the very fact that the Kosovar Albanians have turned up at Rambouillet amounts to an implicit acceptance of this demand; and the Serbian insistence on a signed document is holding up the negotiations.

Mr Cook's criticism has had no impact on Belgrade. The President of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, reiterated the demand on Friday; and he also revived Belgrade's long-standing call for direct face-to-face negotiations between the two sides.

Shuttle diplomacy between two floors

The British, French and Russian mediators have been shuttling between the two delegations on different floors of Rambouillet palace as part of a series of proximity talks.

That practice is seen as more valuable than letting the two sides come together straight away which could lead to endless arguments about protocol, history and matters of detail.

It is by no means clear whether the direct talks sought by Belgrade would actually include representatives of the ethnic Albanians' Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA.

Serbian officials have always insisted that they would not deal with the KLA which they regard as a terrorist organisation.

Indeed, that is one reason why Serbia is opposed to one of the ethnic Albanians' demands - namely, that a ceasefire should be signed by both sides. Negotiating and signing a ceasefire would amount to recognition of the KLA.

Crunch in a week's time

But the call for a formal ceasefire, which was repeated on Friday by an ethnic Albanian spokesman, Xhemail Mustafa, is only one of several demands voiced by the Kosovar Albanians.

These include a guarantee that after the interim three-year plan now under discussion, a referendum should be held on Kosovo's independence.

Given the ethnic Albanians' overwhelming majority, such a ballot would be a resounding vote in favour of independence; and to promise a referendum now would undermine the current peace plan which envisages only autonomy for Kosovo.

The apparent lack of progress is due not only to lack of flexibility. It is also part of the brinkmanship employed on both sides to extract further concessions from adversaries and mediators alike.

The crunch will come in a week's time. And there is little doubt that Nato will probably have to flex its muscles again if there is to be any chance of a deal being reached.

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