THE HOPE of imposing a political settlement on Serbia and the Albanian majority of Kosovo province is that the "Contact Group" remains united in purpose.
The United States, Russia and four European NATO members, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, all demand the same outcome. As long as they stand together, they may get it.
If President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the Serbian strong man, cannot drive wedges between those powerful countries, he will have to back down and grant Kosovars autonomy. And that is no more than they had even under the Communist dictator, Tito.
President Clinton's offer of U.S. troops in his Saturday radio address strengthened the hand of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and European foreign ministers in imposing a settlement on the Albanian Kosovars and Serbia.
No one pretends the two sides are freely arriving at agreement, only that they are given another week at the Chateau Rambouillet near Paris to swallow the deal.
Mr. Clinton offered 4,000 U.S. troops, providing circumstances guaranteeing their safety are met. They would be part of a NATO-led force of 25,000, functioning with Russia's approval or participation, to enforce an agreed peace and collect weapons from both sides.
There will be no peacekeeping force unless Serbia and the Albanian Kosovars agree on a political settlement. Under it, the Kosovar people would have autonomy but not independence. Most of the Yugoslav military force would return to Serbia proper.
If the Serbs do not agree, the threat of bombing remains. If the Albanian Kosovars do not agree, they would deciding their own fate. The plan has the virtue of denying each what it seeks while conceding to each its minimum requirement.
The catch is that the only Serb who can sign off on the deal, President Milosevic, is not at Rambouillet. His lieutentant, Serbia's President Milan Milutinovic will agree to nothing until Mr. Milosevic tells him. Mr. Milosevic is a master of conceding just enough at the last minute. The deadline set by the Contact Group is noon Saturday.
The tough diplomacy is not guaranteed to succeed, but it is impressive. The U.S. component remains necessary, both in the leadership exercised by Mrs. Albright and the U.S. offer of troops in a peacekeeping force and bombs in its absence. Mr. Clinton's policy apparently has bipartisan support. That, too, is necessary.
Pub Date: 2/16/99