Russia Says Peace Talks Sideswiped
By David Hoffman
MOSCOW, May 27 – Russia vowed today to continue to try to mediate between NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic but said that his indictment on war crimes charges had complicated the effort and that the talks were not moving in a positive direction.
Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian special envoy for the Yugoslav crisis, denounced the indictment of Milosevic as a "political show" and postponed his planned trip to Belgrade by a day, until Friday.
He did so after a round of talks here with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the European Union envoy – the latest effort in prolonged negotiations that have yet to produce a postwar plan for Kosovo. Talbott and Ahtisaari immediately left for Bonn. Aides said Chernomyrdin still planned to fly to Belgrade on Friday, and Ahtisaari said later he may join him.
While concrete information was scarce, Russian and Western sources emphasized that the talks face difficulties. Russian officials said the three negotiators would meet in a few days to try again.
Today's talks, which included military experts, were the outgrowth of several weeks of slow-going diplomacy aimed at finding a political settlement to end the NATO air raids against Yugoslavia and the exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. A key focus has been on how to create a Kosovo peacekeeping force that would allow refugees to return. NATO insists it must be at the core of such a force, but Russia wants United Nations leadership.
There were signs that the West's discussions with Chernomyrdin were difficult, even before his next step of flying to see Milosevic. Chernomyrdin has insisted that he does not want to be just a mailman between NATO and Belgrade. But the West has shown no signs of compromise, putting him in a ticklish position at home.
"I have a nasty feeling about the talks," said a Russian source with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. "NATO is making it clear that [a settlement] has to be on their terms, and if we want to, we can join. Chernomyrdin is a bit heavy to go into retirement as a former mailman."
In Washington today, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou also expressed concern that the mediation was hampered by the gap between Moscow and NATO on key issues such as composition of the peacekeeping force.
"We have basically given the whole negotiation . . . to the Russians," Papandreou told Washington Post editors and reporters. "They're saying, 'We can only negotiate up to a point, we can't push NATO priorities because they aren't our priorities.'‚"
There were signs that Yugoslavia was looking for mediators other than Moscow to convey its message to the United States. In Washington, Jesse L. Jackson said Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic told him today that Yugoslavia was willing to reduce its forces in Kosovo "substantially and quickly" to 12,000 if NATO first suspended its bombing. NATO has signaled it will halt its airstrikes only after Belgrade has withdrawn significant forces from Kosovo.
NATO estimates that Yugoslavia has about 40,000 troops, police and other forces in the province. It has demanded that all of them leave, while signaling some could return for purposes such as to help protect borders and holy sites.
Jackson said he had remained in touch with senior Yugoslav officials since playing a key role in winning the release of three American POWs on May 2. Jackson, who said he briefed the White House on his talk with Jovanovic, said "12,000 is too many, but it's still substantial movement. There is some flexibility here."
In Moscow, Western sources said Chernomyrdin, accompanied by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at today's discussions, faces several obstacles. The first is that his personal relationship with Milosevic is not good; their prior meetings have been tense. Second, Russia's foreign policy and defense establishment is firmly against NATO's offensive and Chernomyrdin has few allies at home and many critics – especially if he just appears to be doing the West's bidding. Still other roadblocks are today's indictment of Milosevic and NATO's continuing airstrikes, despite Russia's daily pleas for a pause.
"We cannot say the situation is developing positively," President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Dmitri Yakushkin, told reporters. "Everybody would want to see a quick breakthrough in the talks on Yugoslavia, but objectively the situation develops so that it is very difficult to reach that."
Chernomyrdin's spokesman, Valentin Sergeyev, said the negotiations "are proceeding in a rather complicated fashion . . . it is in no one's interest to accelerate the process."
The indictment of Milosevic on the eve of Chernomyrdin's visit was denounced by Russia, and viewed by some Russian officials as a sign that the West is taking an uncompromising approach. The newspaper Izvestia noted that "it is impossible to come to terms with a wanted military criminal" and claimed the indictment would cancel out Chernomyrdin's diplomacy.
Sergeyev said recent events "have somewhat complicated the negotiating process and the search for acceptable solutions."
The Foreign Ministry said of the war crimes indictment, "It will add to the obstacles to a Yugoslav settlement. The intention to start a criminal case against Milosevic under the current circumstances is a politically motivated step." The statement added that "such actions of the international tribunal, to which it had resorted before, severely undermine the authority of this agency of the U.N. Security Council."
Nonetheless, Russia said it would continue to seek a political settlement, "and with Milosevic's participation."
Yakushkin underlined that Russia would effectively ignore the indictment. "This is the legally elected president of Yugoslavia," he said of Milosevic. "If you deal with Yugoslavia, one has to deal with one man; that is with the leader of Yugoslavia, its president, Slobodan Milosevic."
In another development, the Tass news agency quoted military sources as saying Russia was ready to contribute up to 10,000 troops as part of a peacekeeping force. The sources said Russia was proposing a force that would be under the command of a neutral country.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company