Kosovo: Can The Allies Win The Diplomatic Endgame?

For days, it looked increasingly likely that NATO would have to send ground troops to Kosovo to fight the forces commanded by intransigent Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Then, suddenly, the mood shifted. Milosevic released three American prisoners of war. The U.S. Congress signaled growing disenchantment with the NATO effort. Two U.S. pilots died when their Apache helicopter crashed--an embarrassing accident for the Allies. Now, for the first time since the war began, a serious effort is under way to find a diplomatic solution to the Kosovo quagmire. Momentum seems to be building for a deal that could involve U.N. peacekeepers, a partial pullout of Serb forces from Kosovo, and a massive reconstruction project for the region.

But President Bill Clinton is likely to find that the diplomatic endgame is even tougher than his much maligned military campaign. Milosevic will balk unless NATO waters down its demands for autonomy for Kosovo, a well-armed international peacekeeping force, and the return of Kosovar Albanian refugees. But if NATO makes too many concessions, the refugees and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) will resist a deal. In this equation, the ability of Russia's special envoy, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, to get Belgrade to meet some of NATO's demands could prove crucial.

"FACE-SAVING SOLUTION." On the surface, NATO seems to be hewing to a hard line. "We don't see much place for compromise," insists a French Foreign Ministry official. But behind the scenes, moves are afoot to make concessions to bring Milosevic on board. "We may have to find a face-saving solution for Belgrade," a German government official concedes privately.

Some subtle shifts are occurring in the rhetoric. On May 3, Clinton said there may be "room for discussion" about the composition of the international peacekeeping force. NATO already has yielded ground on this issue. The failed Rambouillet Accord in February required a NATO force. Then NATO talked about an international force with a NATO core. Now, the betting is that NATO will settle for a U.N. force.

That is more acceptable to the Serbs because Russia would play a key role. Clinton also backs a substantial Russian troop component, as in Bosnia, to build confidence among their Orthodox brethren in Serbia. But big questions remain over how well armed the peacekeepers would be, who would command, and under what rules of engagement. Belgrade would accept light arms, but NATO wants a more robust force.

KEY WORD. Meanwhile, NATO is expected to ease its other big demand--that Yugoslav troops pull completely out of Kosovo. For weeks, NATO leaders have insisted on withdrawal of all Serbian troops. But at a meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia in Bonn on May 6, foreign ministers were expected to issue a broad outline for a settlement that drops the key word "all."

It's not yet clear whether a peace deal would allow Belgrade only border patrols or a more significant force in Kosovo. If there are too many Serb troops in Kosovo and the peacekeepers don't have the firepower to take them on, the Kosovars will refuse to return. "Anything the Serbs will settle for will be unacceptable to the KLA," says Ivo H. Daalder, a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution.

If he's right, NATO may have trouble achieving even its minimal aims in Yugoslavia. It never explicitly sought Milosevic's ouster or independence for Kosovo. All it wanted for the region was a stable, peaceful environment free from atrocities--one the refugees could call home again. If NATO makes too many concessions, it won't even get that.