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Saturday, February 20, 1999 Published at 20:19 GMT

Kosovo talks: The key issue

Stroll in the Rambouillet park in between talks

By South-East Europe Analyst Gabriel Partos

Persuading the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a Nato presence in Kosovo is as expected proving to be the biggest obstacle to a peace settlement at the Rambouillet talks.

Kosovo Section
It may yet take more high-ranking officials than the American envoy Christopher Hill to persuade Mr Milosevic to give in to the demand for the deployment of a Nato-led force to supervise peace implementation in Kosovo.

That could mean that one or more foreign ministers of the six-power Contact Group may also travel to Belgrade to give added weight to the warnings about the consequences of refusing to sign up to a deal at Rambouillet.

The current round of frantic diplomatic activity is the latest example in a pattern Mr Milosevic has established in the 1990s during several Balkan conflicts; taking matters to the brink in the hope of securing last-minute concessions.

[ 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
That was the case, most recently, in October when Mr Milosevic agreed to a ceasefire as Nato's deadline for air strikes against Serbia was only hours away.

This time the Serbian strongman is believed to be holding out for the speedy lifting of a whole range of international sanctions on his country.

But just because in the past Mr Milosevic has tended to give in at the last minute, there is no guarantee that this would happen again at Rambouillet.

And Mr Milosevic's latest uncompromising remarks certainly do not augur well for a deal. That's why America is sending more aircraft to the region and that's why some countries have pulled out their diplomats and dependants from Serbia - both moves signalling that air strikes may be imminent.

[ image: Canadian dependants prepare to leave]
Canadian dependants prepare to leave
The withdrawal of foreign diplomats is expected to take several days; and it would also need to be accompanied by the evacuation of some 1,200 international monitors who have been deployed in Kosovo as part of the bargain that was struck in October.

Even if the evacuation of people goes ahead smoothly, it is likely to take several days before the conditions are in place for Nato air strikes.

That would give a further chance - during the extension granted until Tuesday - for behind-the-scenes negotiations to avert the air strikes option which could cause much damage to Serbia's military potential but also to the West's relations with Russia.

The people's view?

In rejecting a multi-national force for Kosovo, Mr Milosevic said on Friday that the Yugoslav leadership's view is shared by the citizens of the country.

As it happens, Yugoslavia's people have not been consulted on this issue and the Kosovar Albanians would be strongly in favour.

But even if there was a vote against the deployment of foreign troops, it would in no way tie Belgrade's hands. Last April Mr Milosevic held a referendum in Serbia which gave him, as expected, an overwhelming vote against allowing foreign mediation over Kosovo. Yet within a matter of weeks, international mediators were busy at work; and without their work, there would be no peace talks now.

Montenegro's own agenda

Besides, Mr Milosevic's opposition to peacekeepers is not shared among the leadership across Yugoslavia. On the contrary, Serbia's partner in the Yugoslav Federation, Montenegro, is very much in favour.

On Tuesday the Montenegrin Prime Minister, Filip Vujanovic, made clearer than ever before that his country would provide logistical support for any Nato force involved in policing the Kosovo peace deal.

Montenegro's positive attitude to Nato's presence in Kosovo is prompted by the realisation that it would block any attempt by Mr Milosevic to use the Yugoslav army to clamp down on Montenegro's independent-minded leadership.

That is another reason why Mr Milosevic does not want Nato in his backyard. But if he does not sign up by Tuesday, he may face Nato air strikes which could be more persuasive than diplomatic pressure at Rambouillet.

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