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Yugoslavia: U.S. Legislators Defend Duma Talks On Kosovo

Washington, 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Several U.S. legislators who worked out a Kosovo peace proposal with a delegation from Russia's parliament defended their actions Thursday against sharp criticism from fellow members of Congress as well as the State Department.

The group of 11 members of the House of Representatives is sponsoring a resolution that calls on President Bill Clinton's Administration and the leaders of the House and U.S. Senate to support their joint Russian-American effort. The resolution would not have the force of law, but approval would add more pressure on the Clinton Administration and the NATO alliance to end the air offensive against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Despite its non-binding status, Undersecretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs Thomas Pickering told a hearing of the House International Relations Committee that the initiative was an "uncoordinated free-lance," effort.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had already tried and failed to convince the congressional group to withdraw its proposal from consideration. Her spokesman -- James Rubin -- said the State Department did not, in his words, welcome a proliferation of envoys.

The leader of the congressional group, Representative Curt Weldon -- a Republican from the northeastern state of Pennsylvania -- told Thursday's hearing that his group did not consider itself to be a negotiating team. He said:

"Our goal was to not negotiate. We laid out at the outset, with a State Department employee with us the entire time, that we were here to support our administration and its five NATO objectives. And what we said is that we want to try to reach a parameter, a parameter for negotiations to move forward."

Weldon said his group, which was comprised of six Republicans, four Democrats and the lone Independent member of Congress, met with the Duma delegation on April 30 and May 1 in Vienna. Weldon said they met at the invitation of the Russians, who first proposed traveling as a group to Belgrade for a meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Weldon said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott advised against meeting Milosevic but did encourage the legislators to meet with the Duma members at a neutral site.

Weldon said the Americans and the Russians came, as he put it, to an agreement that laid some new guidelines that Russia had never agreed to before. Weldon said:

"For the first time ever, as a result of that agreement, Russia agreed to an armed multinational force in Kosovo. For the first time ever, Russia agreed to the removal of the armed Serbians from Kosovo. For the first time ever, Russia agreed to the use of the term "ethnic cleansing" in a document."

He said the Russian-American document closely paralleled the conditions for peace set down last week by Russia and the seven leading industrial democracies (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S.). However, it differs from the so-called G-8 plan because the Duma-Congress proposal also would give Russia and China a say in the composition of an international peacekeeping force for Kosovo.

While the Administration would not endorse the Weldon group's plan, some of its sharpest criticism came from International Relations Committee members.

Congressman Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the committee, denounced the initiative as bad policy, one that would put Albright "in a straitjacket." Gejdenson declared negotiating "an executive function."

Gejdenson charged that legislators would have been branded as traitors had they tried to negotiate a settlement with Russia in the Persian Gulf War of 1991-92. He said:

"When we look at where we are today, and I again repeat, Democrat or Republican, had a member of Congress proposed as George Bush was beginning the operation 44 days of bombing, and beginning the operation in Iraq, had come forward with a negotiated proposal with the Russians to end this, I know a lot of people in this Congress that would call it treason. And I don't call it treason. And I don't call it treason. I think it's great. You're dedicated. But don't make it an action of the Congress of the United States that tries to put a straitjacket on our negotiators."

However, another member of the delegation, Congressman Neil Abercrombie of the Pacific Ocean state of Hawaii, said the NATO offensive aimed at ending the alleged Serbian persecution of the Kosovar Albanians was not working.

Abercrombie said the bombing campaign "appears to be counterproductive to various others of its announced goals as well." He said the air campaign is "destabilizing rather than enhancing the stability of neighboring countries in the Balkan region, and perhaps most importantly for the long term, it is undermining the strength of pro-democracy and pro-western political forces in Yugoslavia and Russia."

Abercrombie said he and his fellow delegation members are convinced that, "using the good offices of Russia offers the best chance for successful negotiations to end the war in Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia."