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No one expected much from the Kosovo peace talks that were held last month in the French town of Rambouillet. Yet even with those diminished expectations, few people are much satisfied with the results. The talks have recessed until March 15, no party signed anything, fighting has already erupted between Serbian forces and Albanian separatists and there is concern that the Serb military has begun a buildup that presages a major offensive. Rarely have the failings of diplomacy been so visible. Even the six-nation Contact Group that organized and moderated the talks concedes that the main obstacles present at the beginning of the negotiations remain unresolved. What went wrong and what can be done to fix it?

Put very simply, the ethnic hatred between Serbs and Kosovars is long-standing and mistrust is deep. Ethnic Albanians — Muslims who make up 90 percent of the population of the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo — want independence, while Yugoslavia considers the province an integral part of the Serb soul and refuses to give it up. Worse, the government in Belgrade seems willing to go to any length — and commit any atrocity — to prevent Kosovo from going its own way. Warfare erupted more than a year ago between the Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. The fighting has claimed more than 2,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

As the conflict intensified, the Contact Group — made up of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia — dragged both sides to the negotiating table to forge some kind of peace. Seventeen days of talks concluded Feb. 23 with a tentative agreement that offers less than satisfaction to all parties. Perhaps we are lucky to have any agreement at all: The Contact Group’s credibility was undermined when two deadlines for NATO airstrikes passed without the attacks. The Serbs know that the Contact Group does not have the stomach for a real fight. Similarly, the Kosovars recognize that lack of resolve means that it would be dangerous to rely on the West for protection.

The basic agreement proposed by the Contact Group would return autonomy to Kosovo, cut Serb military and police forces in the region to a minimum, disarm the KLA and install a NATO peacekeeping force. The Serbs have strongly objected to the peacekeepers, the KLA is refusing to give up its arms and is demanding a referendum in three years to determine the political future of Kosovo. The result of such a vote — if remotely fair — is a given: The Kosovars would demand independence, the Serbs would resist and the fighting would start all over again.

There is now a two-week window of opportunity for the Contact Group to close the gap between the two sides. That means, first of all, getting the ethnic Albanians to endorse the deal. The Kosovars’ failure to support the Rambouillet agreement means that the West cannot threaten the use of force on their behalf without sacrificing whatever is left of its neutrality. The problem is that the ethnic Albanians themselves are divided, and the radicals have the weapons. The willingness of moderate leaders like Mr. Ibrahim Rugova to endorse the negotiations means nothing when the hardliners can do as they please.

The Contact Group has to get the Albanians on board, and fast. That will require a squeeze on their arms and their funding. The Albanians must understand that having the West’s sympathy is not the same as having a blank check. The sooner they do that, the sooner pressure can then be brought to bear on the Serbs to check their military buildup and accept the NATO peacekeepers. The longer it takes to get the two sides to agree to the Rambouillet proposals, the greater the likelihood that the situation will explode. There are too many arms and there is too much ill will for an uneasy calm to survive.

It is tempting to say that the situation in Kosovo is intractable, that the hatreds that have sustained the fighting are now too deep to be extinguished. The temptation must be resisted. Kosovo has long smoldered, but the fires that have broken out in the last year were not accidental. They were stoked by politicians who expected to profit from them. Peace can be restored to Kosovo and, as in Bosnia, trust can be rebuilt. It will be a long and slow process, however. To do so, the men who are exploiting the situation must be made to understand the limits of their autonomy. Both Serbs and Kosovars must recognize that they cannot — will not — get all that they want. Kosovo will be autonomous, but it will not be independent. Once that is established, and accepted by all sides, there is a chance for real peace in Kosovo.

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