Agreement On Kosovo

 

The agreement on Kosovo announced yesterday between the Serbian president Mr Slobodan Milosevic and Mr Richard Holbrooke representing the international community, is very welcome but potentially seriously flawed. Most valuably, it will provide relief for the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars made homeless by the Serb forces' ruthless campaign against civilians suspected of harbouring separatist paramilitaries. They should gain relief from the rapidly approaching winter under supervision by international monitors. But it remains to be seen whether the agreement reached on autonomy talks will break the prolonged impasse between Serbia and Kosovar leaders who say independence is the only solution to the crisis.

The most hopeful element here is that a threeyear timescale for negotiations and assessment will prove mutually acceptable.

Mr Milosevic's commitment to the agreement will be tested immediately over the next four days as he implements its initial terms while the NATO threat stands intact. Serb army and police forces are to be pulled back so that refugees may begin to return home unmolested. Their longer-term security is to be guaranteed by a 2,000-strong civilian force organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), representatives of which are to begin arriving at the weekend. This is a genuinely pan-European body, with representation from all the states in the region. Its inclusive role has been a constant priority for Irish foreign policy, on the basis that precisely such a universal legitimacy is required for the kind of implementation tasks thrown up by this agreement.

The OSCE civilians on the ground are to be backed up by reconnaissance planes from NATO and other states, but not by troops who could ensure Serb forces will not once again intimidate the returning villagers whose lives they have so severely disrupted over the summer months.

It would be foolish indeed for Mr Milosevic to renege on these immediate commitments - but there is a disturbing lack of detail in the announcements so far about what he has agreed on the longer term withdrawal of troops and police. A relatively thin civilian verification force and a restrictive air reconnaissance operation may have little long-term credibility as a deterrent to Mr Milosevic's bullying tactics in Kosovo.

He has agreed to open talks on autonomy for Kosovo under this agreement, with a suggested threeyear term for assessment, including, presumably, an evaluation of whether separation and independence can be raised as realistic options by Kosovar representatives. Such a long-term perspective is altogether unacceptable to the Serbs, as they continually remind the international community. The point has been well taken by European states fearful of the precedents an independent Kosovo would set and the long-term effects on the region. Over the summer months they pulled back from engagement as the Serb forces took on the separatists - and there is more than a hint of hypocritical concern in their activism now to repair the damage. The most serious criticism of yesterday's agreement is that while it has presumably averted the immediate military crisis, it has merely postponed the question of Kosovo's long-term future. But a three-year negotiating and assessment period may give the Kosovars and Serbs the time to decide between real autonomy or realistic separation.