America’s senior envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton Accords which ended the Bosnian war in December 1995, flew to Belgrade on March 9 to negotiate a final Kosova peace deal directly with Slobodan Milosevic, confident of having finally obtained the Kosovars’ agreement. According to the agreements reached at Rambouillet last month, the three-year interim deal proposed by the west at those talks is supposed to be signed by both sides on March 15. The west’s official position is that if Milosevic still refuses to sign, NATO airstrikes against Serbian military positions will finally go ahead. However, western officials have clearly indicated that this is extremely unlikely. By the time this paper comes out, the deal may have been done. Then again, knowing Milosevic and the Serbs, it may not; last minute procrastination in order to extract further concessions would be precisely their style. Alternatively, the Kosovars may decide not to sign if the west makes concessions to Milosevic which are unacceptable. As the Kosovars are by far the weakest party in the talks, however, and have already signalled their agreement to the draft proposals - which are built on Kosova being granted autonomy for a three-year interim period, with nothing agreed for what should follow - this is less likely. The precise deal the Kosovars have agreed to is not yet known, although the broad terms were agreed at Rambouillet. What is clear is that they were put under two weeks of intense pressure by western officials following the Rambouillet talks to conclude the deal. Even before finally agreeing the deal, however, Kosovar leaders were talking and planning in its terms. At the same time, Serbian forces moved into Kosova, conducting brutal search and destroy operations in the east of the country, near the Macedonian border, which left dozens killed and thousands forced to flee their homes. The fact is that the west did nothing to prevent these operations, despite their being in clear breach of both the `cease-fire’ agreed in October 12 (which still formally stands despite numerous subsequent breaches by the Serbs) and the agreement reached at Rambouillet. This was effectively a warning of what the Kosovars could face - an unhindered Serbian offensive - if they refused to accept the Rambouillet agreement.
The Kosovars for their part were deeply divided after Rambouillet. President Ibrahim Rugova was deliberately sidelined by the American and European negotiators, who chose to deal with KLA leaders instead. Meanwhile, senior statesman Adem Demaci, who was the KLA’s spokesman and de facto political leader, had chosen not to attend the talks in protest at the west’s terms, and was therefore semi-detached from proceedings. KLA leaders consulted him regularly throughout the talks, but at the end chose not to take his advice. He resigned from the KLA political organization on March 2 in protest at other leaders’ inclination towards accepting the Rambouillet proposals instead of holding out for an immediate referendum on independence. He was replaced as the KLA’s political leader by Hicham Thaci, the KLA officer who represented the movement at Rambouillet. Thaci was also appointed head of the new Kosovar provisional government announced by the KLA pending the ratification of the agreement. The Serbs subsequently ordered his arrest and announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in absentia for terrorist offences, which is indicative of the spirit in which they are approaching the talks.
Demaci’s resignation ends a long and distinguished political career in the service of the Kosovar Muslims, 28 years of which were spent in a Yugoslav jail for political reasons, making him the world’s longest serving political prisoner. (This accolade is usually conferred on South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail in two separate spells.) It now appears that the Kosovars have accepted the three-year autonomy proposal. The other stumbling block for the Kosovars after Rambouillet was the west’s demand that the KLA disarm. How this has been resolved remains unclear as we go to press. The west was demanding this in return for guaranteeing the Kosovars’ safety in the form of an international peacekeeping force, which Milosevic was refusing to accept. Holbrooke is now reported to be trying to insist that Milosevic accept it, possibly by offering that it will be made up largely of Russian troops, Russia being the Serbs’ closest ally. This suggests that the Kosovars have accepted the disarmament demand. This is highly risky, for the worth of western guarantees was demonstrated many times in Bosnia during that country’s war, and again in Kosova itself after Holbrooke’s last intervention, which resulted in the useless October 12 agreement. It is now amply clear, despite western suggestions that most Kosovars were eager to accept the Rambouillet agreement, that the Kosovars are being forced into a deal that does precious little to ensure either their safety or their long-term political rights. This was entirely predictable before the talks in Rambouillet began, simply because the Kosovars are arguing from the weakest position and have no leverage. Surrendering their arms leaves them perilously placed when, as seems inevitable sooner or later, the Serbs renew their assault.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999