After 10 weeks of punishing NATO air attacks, Slobodan Milosevic agrees to negotiate a peace
In the end, it was Slobodan Milosevic who buckled, yielding at long last to NATO’s lethal rain of missiles and bombs. After 72 days of unrelenting assault, the Yugoslav president finally capitulated last week. With only token argument, he submitted to virtually all of the Western alliance’s key demands for settling the war in Kosovo, in the process clearing the way for the return home of more than one million Kosovar refugees. Milosevics retreat was so swift, in fact, that it caught many by surprise, not least NATO’s wary leaders. It was greeted with deep skepticism in the teeming refugee camps around Kosovo and near disbelief on the streets of Belgrade. Even Finland’s President Martti Ahtisaari, who helped broker the deal, counselled caution. “The proof of the pudding lies in the eating,” he warned on his return from meeting with Milosevic in the Yugoslav capital. “The same goes for this peace process.”
Still, the package that Ahtisaari and former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin persuaded Yugoslavia’s authorities to accept appeared to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict that commenced last March 24, when NATO launched its air war. The proposals are contained in a twopage, 10-point document, the final product of laboured, sometimes acrimonious, negotiations between Russia, Yugoslavia’s longtime Slavic ally, and the members of the Group of Seven industrial nations—the United States,
Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada.
Under the terms of the accord, Yugoslavia is committed to withdraw all but a handful of the 40,000 troops—regular army, police paramilitary and armed militia—that have been ravaging Kosovo for the past 10 weeks. They are to be quickly replaced by a UN-mandated peacekeeping force of some 50,000 troops, the bulk drawn from NATO member states but also including as many as 10,000 Russian soldiers and perhaps up to 5,000 more from such non-NATO countries as Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Once the peacekeepers are in position, UN and other international aid agencies will oversee the massive task of returning, housing and feeding the hordes of Albanian Kosovars who have been displaced by the war, most of whose homes are now nothing but smouldering ruins.
On the face of it, the plan is straightforward, a categorical defeat for Milosevic, a clear triumph for NATO. In fact, the Kosovo conflict may be the first in history where not a drop of the victors’ blood was spilled, not a single soldier lost in combat. But there was a noticeable lack of euphoria in most NATO capitals last week. Alliance officials estimate that 5,000 Yugoslav soldiers were killed in the conflict, and another 10,000 wounded. Exactly how many civilians died— either ethnic Albanian Kosovars or Serbs—remains to be seen.
Certainly, the numbers are likely to be high, especially among the Kosovars. As many as 200,000 Kosovar males are still listed as missing. For every refugee scattered in and around the province, there is a tale of tragedy, more than a million in all.
And the physical damage has been staggering, estimated by the European Commission to be in excess of $26 billion. Kosovo itself is, according to UN official Sergio Vieira, who completed a tour of the province last week, “a depressing panorama of empty villages, burned houses, looted shops, wandering livestock and unattended farms. Even the wells have been spiked with the carcasses of dead animals, paint thinner and diesel oil.”
If the war’s horrors helped dampen spirits in NATO capitals, there were, as well, lingering concerns about the hurdles
that remain before peace can be achieved. “The devil is in the details,” admitted Ahtisaari as he arrived in Cologne, Germany, late last week to brief a European Union summit meeting in the German city. Not least were doubts about Milosevics true intentions, no surprise given the Yugoslav leader’s track record of broken promises. “We have got to be cautious until it is all tied down,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For that reason, NATO vowed to continue bombing Serbia until there was “verifiable proof” of withdrawal of Yugoslav military units from Kosovo, until, as NATO spokesman Jamie Shea phrased it, “we see the dust of Serbian trucks on Kosovo’s roads.”
To speed that process, a NATO military team met with Serbian officials over the weekend to lay out details of the withdrawal from Kosovo. Even then, considerable problems remain, each capable of being exploited by Milosevic. The 10-point peace package, for example, was deliberately vague about the respective roles of Russian and NATO troops within the proposed peacekeeping force, apparently because the issue of command and I control of the Russian contingent I had still to be resolved. The ambi| guity raised fears of a Russian-con1 trolled zone in Kosovo, a possibility in the mineral-rich north along the border with Serbia. And that fuelled anxiety about the future partition of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian sectors, something strenuously denied by NATO leaders. “That is not what all of this was about,” maintained Britain’s Blair, “and it is important that Kosovo becomes a place in which people can live together, whatever their ethnic background.”
If questions remain about Russia’s future role, there were few doubts being expressed about that country’s contribution to the peace package. NATO leaders, in fact, were effusive in their praise of Russian diplomacy, a far cry from the frustration and anger previously voiced. Until recently, many in NATO, including Canadian officials, portrayed the Russians as acting like “Milosevic’s lawyers,” as one Western diplomat put it.
For several weeks as the air war unfolded, there was a feel-
Discussions with Milosevic were ‘businesslike, with no raised voices’
ing at NATO headquarters in Brussels that the Russians were using diplomacy simply to stall any move towards peace. Insiders suggested Russian leaders were hoping NATO’s internal strains over the campaign would worsen, perhaps splitting the alliance permanently. With the Russians failing to put what NATO deemed a serious offer on the table, Western leaders considered ways to force Moscow to choose sides.
As recently as May 29, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and some of her colleagues in other capitals were considering a plan to introduce a resolution containing the basics of NATO’s peace plan to the UN Security Council— and defying the Russians to veto it. Washington wanted the resolution brought to the United Nations just before the annual summit of G-8 nations (the G-7 plus Russia) in Cologne this month, on the assumption that Russian President Boris Yeltsin would not want to come to a meeting of world leaders having just vetoed a way to end the bombing campaign. “At some point,” complained one Western negotiator at the time, “the Russians are going to have to decide whether they want to be part of the civilized world,
or if they want to hang out with guys like Milosevic.”
In the end, Russia chose to side with the Western alliance, a development viewed by many diplomats last week as perhaps the critical move that finally pushed Milosevic into accepting the peace plan presented to him by Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin. The entire process transpired rapidly, requiring only three sessions over two days to convince the Yugoslav leader to agree to what both the Finnish and Russian negotiators flatly declared was the international community’s “best offer.” In Cologne, Ahtisaari described the discussions with Milosevic as “businesslike, with no raised voices.” At the same time, however, he recalled: “I had to say that I and Mr. Chernomyrdin did not have the authority to negotiate.”
Faced with the resolve of both Russia and the West, Milosevic, in effect, surrendered, even if he has since been attempting to portray his decision in a different light. “We achieved peace and an end of the atrocious bombing,” announced Milosevics Socialist Party in a statement. “Undefeated in our heroic struggle against the aggression, we will now continue the successful defence of vital national and state interests in peace, by political methods.”
Neither Milosevic’s allies nor his opponents within Serbia appeared fooled by the rhetoric, however. Vice-premier Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, vowed to remove his forces from the governing coalition. And opposition Democratic Party Leader Zoran Djindjic, from his self-imposed exile in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, wondered aloud “if it was necessary to take 70 days of bombing to accept what everybody in their right minds knew had to be accepted.”
On the streets of Belgrade, there was a mixture of relief and bitterness. “The most important thing now is that we go home,” confided one 25-year-old army officer on home leave, adding that he believed his opinion was shared by “99 per cent of the army.” Denouncing Milosevic’s move as “a capitulation,” 74-year-old pensioner Mitar Mihajlovic, a veteran of Josip Tito’s Second World War partisans, said he just wanted “the bombing to stop—everything else can go to hell.” Taxi driver Dragoljub Velickovic, 38, declared that he was “for peace as soon as possible. As soon as it comes, they’re going to open the border—and that’s all I need. I’m gonna get the hell out of here and I’ll never come back.”
Beyond Serbia’s borders, among the refugees forced out of their Kosovo homes, there was widespread skepticism. In the dust and heat of Macedonia’s Stenkovec refugee camp, ethnic Albanians from Kosovo gathered around loudspeakers hung on a flagpole to hear the news from Belgrade. “We are used to Milosevic’s agreements,” one woman said. “He is always signing things but we see what he does after
he signs. I don’t think this means that we are going home any time soon.”
Others were more confident. Ron Redmond, chief spokesman in Macedonia for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, described the Kosovar exiles as one of the most “return-oriented” refugee populations he has ever observed. As a result, both the UNHCR and other international aid agencies worried that once people believe it is safe to go home, there could be an uncontrolled stampede for the border. “We could see,” said Redmond, “a fairly large spontaneous return of refugees because often the refugees have a better idea of conditions on the ground than we do.”
Meanwhile, NATO headquarters in Macedonia is working flat-out to prepare to deploy KFOR, the Kosovo peace force. There are already 15,000 NATO troops in the country, the lead elements of the peacekeeping force destined to move into Kosovo in the event of an agreement. One NATO spokesman suggested the first members of the force could be in the province “within days.” Other officials, however, expected that it could take as long as a week or two before the political discussions with Belgrade led to new orders.
Once deployed, KFOR will be charged with protecting Kosovo’s Serb residents as well as ethnic Albanians.
And that may well place NATO’s peacekeepers in confrontation with the newly resurgent forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The peace package accepted by Milosevic last week—like the earlier Rambouillet agreement he rejected, precipitating the war—calls for the KLA’s disarmament. Unlike Rambouillet, however, the new pact places no timetable on the process.
Nor does it provide, as Rambouillet did, for a review of Kosovo’s status after a cooling-off period under NATO’s protection. “Militarily, this agreement is better than Rambouillet,” said Baton Haxhiu, editor of the Kosovan newspaper Koha Ditore, now published from exile in Macedonia. “But politically, the agreement is weaker because it does not provide for a referendum on independence.” Already, there have been rumblings of discontent from the KLA’s leadership on the issue. The volume is likely to swell as Serb forces in the province retreat, posing yet another dilemma for NATO’s peacekeepers as they move into the heart of the Balkan tinderbox.
With Bruce Wallace in Ottawa, Paul Wood in Skopje and Justin Brown in Belgrade
The war in numbers
857.000 Kosovo Albanian refugees who have fled the province
500.000 Displaced Kosovars believed sheltering within the province
5.000 Yugoslav soldiers killed, by NATO’s estimate
1,200 Yugoslav civilians killed in NATO raids, according to Belgrade 391 Kosovars listed as massacred since the beginning of 1999, in war crimes charges against President Slobodan Milosevic and four other officials
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