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Russians, Greeks hold key to resolving Kosovo crisis


After a week of full-blown war, it is almost impossible that either the leading NATO countries or the leadership in Belgrade can negotiate a political solution to the conflict over Kosovo. Both are committed to short-term military objectives that could well leave the Balkan countries more volatile than they were before.

A mutually acceptable compromise is possible -- but not one brokered by NATO leaders and Slobodan Milosevic. Russia’s recent return to the international stage is essential for striking a peace deal acceptable to the West, the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s mission to Belgrade illustrates Moscow’s willingness to do so. But a Russian-led diplomatic initiative must be aimed at Serb opposition and disgruntled military brass, not the present leadership. This could pave the way to a solution, not only for Kosovo but eventually for the whole of the Balkans. Equally as important, it could ease the dangerously strained relations between the West and Russia.

Backed by the United Nations, Russian and perhaps Greek diplomats must take the lead. Their critical responses to NATO bombing and perceived affinity to the Orthodox Serbs gives them a credibility that the United States, Great Britain and Germany lack. Despite Russia’s counterproductive, overblown rhetoric, it has as much interest in seeing a peaceful solution to the crisis as do the NATO countries. Russia harbors no special love for Milosevic, and a diplomatic coup could do wonders for Russia’s bruised image at home and abroad.

Three Balkan wars have proved beyond any doubt that a solution with Milosevic in power is out of the question. As for defeat on the battlefield, Milosevic is perfectly willing to sacrifice his country’s prosperity and possession of Kosovo as well for retaining power. Even if NATO forces, together with the KLA, were to defeat the Serbs in Kosovo, Milosevic could well remain in control, perhaps even stronger than before. Serbia itself would become a defeated, humiliated and further isolated rogue nation -- perfect conditions for a despot to thrive.

A way out of the impasse is possible only if reform-minded forces in Serbia come to power and Serbia itself embarks on a process of democratization. Such opposition forces do exist -- and have real power -- in Belgrade, in Montenegro, in Vojvodina, a province in northern Serbia, and in exile abroad.

It is critical that they, and international negotiators, make contact with disenchanted sections of the Yugoslav military and security forces who despair over Serbia’s destruction and future as an impoverished pariah state. The generals’ interests lie in Serbia’s survival, with as much territory and military hardware as can be salvaged.

If a Russian-Greek led team could reach these elements and promise international support, a putsch against the Milosevic regime could become possible. In the clearest terms, Montenegro has already distanced itself from Milosevic’s disastrous policies. The Serb leader’s ephemeral popular support at home could evaporate quickly if a cohesive Serb opposition were to present itself with a better offer in hand.

Serb moderates must be made a concrete offer palatable to all involved. In return for ending the military offensive in Kosovo and accepting the political conditions of Rambouillet, a broad multinational U.N. contingent with a robust U.N. peacekeeping mandate would be deployed in Kosovo, rather than a NATO force. In return, bombing would stop immediately. Also, Serbia would not only have all economic sanctions at once lifted but would also receive Western aid to rebuild its shattered economy and pursue long-overdue democratic reform.

In this way, the Serbs, the Russians, NATO and the U.N. would all win. Milosevic would lose, thus enabling Serbia, if it so chose, to emerge from isolation and join Europe. Relations between Russia and the West could be put back on track and the U.N. Security Council re-empowered with ultimate responsibility for the Kosovo conflict.

After the debacle of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, many might object that the United Nations is simply not up to the task. But a stronger mandate and a serious commitment from member states, not least the United States, could produce a capable force.

After NATO bombing, any direct NATO presence on the ground in Kosovo would be tantamount to occupation and thus unacceptable even to a new Serbian government. A state of war, whether spoken or unspoken, would exist between Serbia and NATO troops. The United Nations has an internationally authorized role in peacekeeping and should be given a fair second chance to prove itself. A commander from an impartial country, like Sweden or Norway, could head up the mission, which would include Russians, Czechs and Ukrainians among other nationalities.

The question, of course, remains whether a putsch, coup or even civil war against Milosevic and his loyalists would succeed. But as bombing brings Serbia to its knees, the military elite could well turn on the autocrat, just as its counterparts did on Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989.

The democratization of Serbia is a prerequisite to peace in the Balkans, just as Russia’s partnership with the West is the key to long-term stability in Europe. Isolation and exclusion serve no one better than the hard-liners. But the West should not pander to irrational and belligerent forces.

If Russia expects to be treated as an equal in Europe, Moscow must take it upon itself to engage constructively in Europe’s crises.

Paul Hockenos, who has previously reported from the region for NCR, is a Balkan analyst for the Center for Transatlantic Security, a Berlin-based think tank. He recently returned from Bosnia after two years with the peacekeeping mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999