Prague, 26 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers of the Contact Group on former Yugoslavia -- made up of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- meeting in Bonn yesterday threatened Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with punitive measures in four weeks' time if he does not take "urgent" steps to reconcile with the ethnic Albanians.
A statement issued by the Contact Group said: "We expect President Milosevic to implement the process of unconditional dialogue and take political responsibility for ensuring that Belgrade engages in serious negotiation on Kosovo's status."
But will there really be serious talks between Belgrade and the Kosovars? Observers trying to answer that question in recent days have been reduced to the level of tea-leaf reading.
When Milosevic appointed Federal Vice Prime Minister Vladen Kutlesic as his "special envoy" to Kosovo this was taken as a sign that Belgrade is really willing to negotiate. Kutlesic is one of the two or three people closest to Milosevic.
Dusan Janjic, a moderate Serb politician who co-ordinates the international Forum for Ethnic Relations, and who has held unofficial talks bringing together Serbs and Kosovars, says Milosevic is giving few public signals of his intentions.
But Janjic says he is sure Milosevic will accept dialogue, because he always bows to international pressure. As Janjic puts it: "The main reason for his (Milosevic's) activities is the level of pressure coming from Washington."
Another sign that encouraged belief that talks would materialize was the naming by Ibrahim Rugova earlier this week of a team to prepare talks. Although some thought this might only be posturing to appear amenable in the eyes of the international community, others thought it could lead to real talks. (The Kosovo Albanians had refused for 10 straight days to talk to a delegation from Serbia, whose intentions they saw as cynical.)
However, Stojan Cerovic, a journalist with the independent Belgrade-based newspaper Vreme, says the position of the Albanians is confused.
Cerovic says it seems the Albanians seem to want to negotiate with Milosevic himself and it is unclear whether they will talk with special envoy Kutlesic if he is seen as part of the Serbian delegation.
Complicating developments was the formation of a new Serbian government on Tuesday that includes the ultranationalist Radical Party headed by Vojislav Seselj, who is now a deputy prime minister. Cerovic says talks may still take place despite the presence of Seselj, but may be less likely to reach any agreement.
New Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic signaled the Serb side's unwillingness to make concessions on Wednesday when he took a hard line, saying his government will continue to fight what he called Albanian "separatism and terrorism" in Kosovo.
An American academic who has talked unofficially with both sides, and who asked not to be identified, says that "sooner or later they're going to have to talk and sooner or later they are going to have to come to a solution. The problem is that each side now thinks it can win" without talks.
The Serbs calculate that they have the force to brave any insurgency by the newly-emerged Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), and the Albanians think that if they are stubborn enough, the Serbs will bow to the logic of their overwhelming numbers and Kosovo will win independence. Albanians outnumber Serbs in Kosovo by nine to one, and although almost all Serbs vow that they hold Kosovo sacred -- as the cradle of their culture and religion -- few seem prepared actually to fight for it.
The American academic says bleakly: "I don't see any quick breakthrough. We are a long way from any negotiations" that would solve the overall Kosovo problem.
And a new proposal has been thrown into the mixture further to confuse the discussion of a future for Kosovo. Both Albania and the United States have suggested that it will not be sufficient to restore the autonomy (first granted by Tito) that Kosovo enjoyed within Serbia until Milosevic revoked it in 1989.
Their proposal, instead, is for Kosovo to be given the status of a republic within Yugoslavia, on a par with Serbia and Montenegro, the only two republics left in rump Yugoslavia. Another comparison is to the rights that Bosnian Serbs enjoy as one of the two constituent entities within the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But this proposal has aroused howls of anger from all quarters in Serbia.
Commentator Cerovic says that Milosevic has the support of all the opposition parties in resisting this proposal, although he may eventually grant some level of autonomy within Serbia.
But Cerovic says that "in Serbia there is a fear that if Kosovo gets this status within Yugoslavia, that might end up in full independence of Kosovo."
Janjic, from the Forum for Ethnic Relations, sees an even more dire outcome if the proposal were accepted. He says Montenegrins would feel like second-class citizens in any Yugoslavia that included Kosovo as a republic because there are so many more ethnic Albanians than Montenegrins. He warns that Serbia might then insist on unification with the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, to offset the new power of the Kosovars.
Janjic says this proposal would lead directly to a wider Balkan war, involving not only Yugoslavia, but also Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania.
With so little common ground between the Serbian government and the Kosovars, it is difficult to see a peaceful way out of the current impasse.
"I don't see a way out," says Cerovic. "I am afraid there will be a lot of violence." But he says it is difficult to tell what will happen next.
"The point is that I believe that nobody can really predict what
will happen in the foreseeable future with Kosovo or with Serbia," says Cerovic. "Things are in a very very bad shape. There are too many forces pushing in different directions, so it's all pretty chaotic right now."
The American academic is also pessimistic. "I don't think this is going to be easier to solve than the Irish situation." He suggests that, if anything, it will be more difficult. "At least," he says, "the Irish situation didn't have international ramifications. Kosovo has ramifications in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia."