Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of the peace talks in Rambouillet, France, it was the pessimists who seemed to have the upper hand.
The Serbs had found excuses to prevent members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) from leaving the southern Serbian province to attend the talks. At the same time, Ratko Markovic, one of the three leading members of the Serbian delegation, arrived in Paris saying that his team had no intention of talking, in his phrase, to "kidnappers and murderers."
But 24 hours later, Markovic and the full Serbian delegation were sitting just yards away from the ethnic Albanian team, including the UCK group.
On the face of it, there was not much room for optimism about the peace talks that started over the past weekend in the 14th century chateau in Rambouillet. Although the delegations have been convened to discuss only a three-year interim deal, the ethnic Albanians were demanding a referendum on independence at the end of that period, something the Serbs reject out-of-hand. Chris Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, calls efforts at ending this discord "reconciling the irreconcilable."
Yet in fact all indications are that, barring the unexpected (another massacre in Kosovo, for example), the negotiators may well be able to clinch a deal. And even if they do not quite succeed within the two-week time-frame set by the six-nation Contact Group for former Yugoslavia, they may make enough progress to reconvene soon afterward to finish the job.
Put simply, both sides have an interest in reaching an agreement. First, they have to weigh up the costs of failure. The diplomats are telling the Serbs that, if they are seen to undermine an agreement, then Yugoslav military targets will be bombed. Slobodan Milosevic and his generals have no wish to have their air defenses pulverized. This means that, in the end, they must take this threat seriously.
The ethnic Albanians have apparently also been threatened. For them the fear is not so much that NATO will cut off arms supply routes to the UCK. It is rather that if they are seen to block progress, then the West will do little or nothing if Serbian forces rampage across the province using their full military might against the lightly armed guerrillas and unarmed civilians.
On a more positive note, the UCK -- and the other ethnic Albanians in the negotiating team -- believe that once a deal is done and a full-scale NATO-led peacekeeping force is established in the province, then Kosovo will be well on the way to independence. The vast majority of official posts will be in the hands of the ethnic Albanians. More to the point, though, while some UCK forces will be confined to barracks, others will be disbanded -- only to promptly reappear in public as the major part of a new local police force.
In public, the UCK and the remainder of the Kosovo Albanian delegation are saying that a referendum is indispensable to any deal. In fact, their fall-back position is that they will give up this demand as long as no option is foreclosed at the end of three years. This notion is clearly on the table, as was underlined by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at the start of the talks. Cook told the delegates that the proposed draft agreement meant that both sides should seek to make progress "without surrendering any of their views as to what should be the long term future for Kosovo after three years."
In contrast to the ethnic Albanians, the Serbs are far less optimistic that a deal will be struck in Rambouillet. Still, they do not expect the meeting to be a complete failure either. They predict that enough progress will be made at Rambouillet for a new round of talks to begin soon afterward. According to Serbian sources, Milosevic has already accepted the inevitability of some sort of foreign peacekeeping force for Kosovo. Whether it will be NATO-led or come under some other guise has still to be negotiated. Milosevic also wants to see what his negotiators can get in return for any deal -- that is, the lifting of all remaining international sanctions against Serbia.
For the Serbs, an accord that left all options open at the end of the three-year period could be presented as a plus, because the province will remain both in the interim and possibly after that -- as one diplomat puts it -- "implicitly" within Serbia. Independence is therefore not inevitable.
The diplomats, meanwhile, are hoping that the three-year interim period will see more than a calming of passions and the end of the war. They hope that by the end of that period, Milosevic will have fallen. It is unclear, however, whether any new, democratically elected Serbian or Yugoslav leader would find it easier to deal with the difficulties of the Kosovo issue.
Pessimists believe that the difference between the Dayton conference, which ended the war in Bosnia in November 1995, and Rambouillet is that at the former, all sides were exhausted, had fought one another to a virtual standstill, and wanted a deal. This, they say, is not -- or not yet -- the case in Kosovo. Indeed, in the words of one diplomat: "We are trying to get them to agree to a peace deal before the war has really begun."
(Tim Judah, author of the recent book, "The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Europe," is an occasional contributor to RFE/RL.