Despite the uncertainty raised by the suspension of discussions between Yugoslav and NATO generals, few people here believe the Kosovo peace plan accepted last week by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is in serious jeopardy. Rather, according to political analysts and foreign diplomats here, Milosevic is attempting to use ambiguities in the plan to win time and play on divisions between NATO and Russia, which helped broker the plan.
In particular, Milosevic would like the United Nations to play as large a role as possible in supervising NATO troops and other international peacekeepers who would enter Kosovo in accordance with the plan. Milosevic also may be angling for deployment of the largest possible Russian contingent among the peacekeepers.
Yugoslav officials today played down the notion of a major rift between Belgrade and NATO over implementation of the plan, which requires withdrawal of all Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo and the return of all ethnic Albanian refugees to their homes in the province under supervision of the peacekeeping force.
Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio and a Milosevic associate, predicted quick progress toward resolution of the impasse and all but pleaded for NATO to show patience and restrain its air offensive. "There is no reason to intensify bombing or continue the bombing at all, because the people and government . . . adhere to the idea of peace," he told reporters. "Additional efforts to convince us are uncalled for."
By holding up implementation of the peace deal, Milosevic demonstrated once again that he is a master of the last-minute tactical ploy. A key issue for the Yugoslav leader, and one that was left unclear in the vaguely worded 12-point document accepted by Milosevic and the Serbian parliament last Thursday, is the degree of U.N. control over the peacekeeping force that will go into Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. To put the issue at its simplest, Yugoslavia would like the peacekeeping contingent to be a U.N. force with a strong Russian component, while the West has demanded a NATO-led force.
"Milosevic needs an alibi for both international and internal public opinion," said Bratislav Grubacic, publisher of an influential daily news bulletin here. "He does not want to surrender to NATO, but to the U.N. Security Council."
Yugoslav officials and foreign diplomats said that Milosevic is insisting that the entry of peacekeepers into Kosovo be postponed until the force receives a clear U.N. mandate. Western governments, by contrast, want to keep the peacekeeping operation under tight NATO control and are extremely wary of anything that smacks of shared authority.
While Western officials have been quick to accuse Milosevic of going back on his word, a careful reading of the plan agreed to last Thursday suggests that several interpretations are possible. The plan describes NATO participation in the peacekeeping force as "essential," but it also states that the peacekeeping force should be formed "under U.N. auspices."
A member of the Yugoslav delegation to this weekend's talks with NATO generals in Macedonia, Assistant Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic, accused NATO today of attempting to inject "political questions" into a technical military document. He said that "the scope, modalities and mandate" of the Kosovo peacekeeping force were matters that should be decided by a Security Council resolution and not by NATO alone.
Beyond the question of appearances, there are obvious military advantages to Belgrade in the greatest possible involvement of the Security Council in drawing up a mandate for the peacekeeping force. If NATO takes the lead in setting up the force, the Serb-controlled Belgrade government will have virtually no say in its operation. If it is a U.N. force, then it becomes subject to the vetoes of Russia and China, two permanent Security Council members that are more likely than Western governments to take Yugoslav interests into account.
By delaying implementation of the peace plan, Milosevic may also be hoping to buy time for deployment of Russian troops in Kosovo in sufficient numbers to dilute the NATO character of the peacekeeping force. Under the plan drawn up by NATO, Kosovo would be divided into British, American, French, Italian and German sectors. There will be no separate Russian sector, even though Moscow has talked about contributing between 5,000 and 10,000 troops.
According to Grubacic, Milosevic would like to have Russian troops deployed in northern Kosovo, close to the border with Serbia proper. This would have the effect of creating what amounts to a haven for the Serbian minority in Kosovo, many of whose members might flee the province in the absence of a friendly protective force. NATO opposes a separate Russian sector in Kosovo because it fears this might presage a de facto partition.
There were substantial military objections to the agreement Milosevic signed, and he and his generals now appear to be trying to claw back some lost ground. One such issue is the requirement that Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces withdraw fully from Kosovo within a week and that only a few hundred of them would be allowed to return later to guard Serbian religious and historic sites.
Matic declined to discuss objections to the withdrawal timetable and force levels as spelled out at the talks in Macedonia. "The problem has many faces," he told reporters today. "The solution must be security for all. We must remove all possible problems because shortcomings might produce obstacles for implementation."
In recent days, military officials in Belgrade were clear in their opposition to postwar limits on government troop levels in Kosovo to "the hundreds," down from about 40,000 today. For the past several weeks, officials here insisted that at least 11,000 soldiers and police were needed to protect the Serbian minority in the province and prevent a return of separatist Kosovo Albanian guerrillas to their strongholds.
Once the troop limits became public here, military officials began talking of capitulation and predicting that not a single Serbian civilian would remain in the province -- where they had been outnumbered 9 to 1 by ethnic Albanians. In effect, not only was the war against NATO lost, but also the war with the the guerrilla force -- the Kosovo Liberation Army -- which Yugoslav military officials had declared won on May 9. At a Belgrade bar one recent night, a member of an air defense unit on leave joked with his friends in the ironic tones of the defeated. "We won! We won!" he shouted, to the nervous glance of onlookers.
Yugoslav troops and Serbian police are spread all over Kosovo, a dispersal that offered the best defense against NATO bombs -- the ground units presented small, difficult to find targets. Such dispositions also permitted them to guard against intrusions of the KLA into towns and cities, while small patrols pursued rebel remnants in the hills or tried to block infiltration routes from Albania with artillery fire and ambushes.
Withdrawal reverses both strategic gains -- border defense and the control of ethnic Albanian urban neighborhoods and villages. KLA spokesmen in the United States and Europe have refused to promise to disarm. NATO has called on the KLA only to show "restraint" as government forces leave Kosovo and have given no indication of how the allies plan to fulfill their pledge to "demilitarize" the rebels.
For the Yugoslav army, a quick withdrawal also presents a logistical nightmare. Heavy equipment transferred into Kosovo to defend against a potential NATO invasion must now be withdrawn over bumpy roads and bombed-out bridges. Moreover, it is hard for Yugoslav generals to swallow the defeat implied in the peace plan, especially since they are being fed ultimatums from NATO and not making arrangements with the United Nations, analysts say.
Few observers here believe that the military officials who met with their NATO counterparts in Macedonia were acting on their own. They were, however, eager to lose as few of their battlefield gains as possible. Some analysts fear that if it is humiliated, the army will become vulnerable to nationalist appeals from extremist politicians, in particular Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who already is blaming not only NATO for the defeat, but also domestic "traitors."