of the Belgrade Coup
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Leon Chame - 2008
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- Transnational (TFF)
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avgust 20, 2008
Revealed: How deal was done in Stalin's hideaway
Saturday June 5, 1999
In the countryside just outside Moscow, where the closed side roads
and KGB guards of the old communist elite have been replaced by the grim-faced private
bodyguards of the new rich, one dacha retains the big green metal gates, the special
troops in uniform, and the sinister reputation of the past. Through these gates of Joseph
Stalin's Kuntsevo retreat on Thursday morning of last week came two motorcades. One
carried Strobe Talbott, the American deputy secretary of state, a man with a passion for
Russian history since he wrote a schoolboy essay on Pushkin and the Russian soul, who
translated Nikita Khrushchev's secret memoirs while a graduate student at Oxford in 1969.
The other carried Finland's president, Martti Ahtisaari, the European Union's special
envoy on Kosovo. Inside the dacha was a billionaire. Viktor Chernomyrdin, former prime
minister of Russia and former boss of the state energy monopoly Gazprom, had been selected
by Boris Yeltsin as Russia's negotiator. Chernomyrdin showed the two guests into a small
room with three chairs around a table, and as the others sat, Chernomyrdin
drew up a fourth chair. "That's for Milosevic," he said. "Whatever we say
here, we had better not forget that he is part of this too." For Talbott, it
was eerie, talking his fluent Russian in a room where Stalin's ghost lingered, with an
empty chair symbolising the nearest Europe had seen to Stalin's heir. Two days earlier,
Talbott had been informed that President Milosevic would be formally indicted as a war
criminal by the international tribunal at the Hague. "We kept turning to that empty
chair during the talks, and asking 'What would he do? How would Milosevic react',"
Talbott confided when he returned to Nato HQ in Brussels the following day.
That day of talks in Stalin's dacha seemed to have got nowhere at the time. Only now does
it emerge as a pivotal moment in the move towards peace, because it convinced Chernomyrdin
of two things. The first was that the Americans, and Nato, would not back down on their
terms. "Our bottom line is that all the Serbs, or almost all, have got to leave
Kosovo. And they have to be replaced by a international peacekeeping force with a clear
Nato chain of command and with Nato at its core," Talbott stressed. "That is it.
No compromise on those points. No negotiation with Belgrade. We are not talking to
Milosevic except in one language: bombing." The second truth that Chernomyrdin
recognised was that there would be no dividing the hawks from the doves, no real gap
between the Americans and the Europeans which Moscow could exploit.
This surprised the Russian, who had expected a more emollient approach from President
Ahtisaari. Finland, occupied by Russia throughout the 19th century, and invaded by Stalin
in 1939, had learned to play the neutrality game with something close to genius. One of
the four EU member states which was not a member of Nato, Finland was expected to play a
But Ahtisaari was not that neutral. He was a close friend of Talbott's brother-in-law,
Derek Shearer, who had been US ambassador to Finland. And Ahtisaari had been born in
Vyborg when it was still a Finnish border town, before he fled as a boy with his family as
refugees from Stalin's 1939 invasion. A veteran diplomat who had worked in the UN and
spent 11 years talking to an intransigent apartheid regime, Ahtisaari helped steward the
UN-brokered independence talks on Namibia to success. Also a veteran of the European and
UN mediation efforts in Croatia seven years ago, Ahtisaari was picked by the German
chancellor, Gerhard Schrsder, to be the EU's special envoy.
Schrsder assumed the talks would go on into July, when Finland took over the rotating EU
presidency from Germany.
In the dacha, Chernomyrdin had three proposals, which he said would be enough to persuade
Milosevic to accept the peace terms agreed by the G8 foreign ministers in Bonn. First,
Russian troops should take care of the northern zone of Kosovo, where most Serbs lived.
Talbott refused; that threatened a kind of partition of Kosovo, which would itself
contravene the G8 principles. Second, while the Russian thought he could convince
Milosevic to accept some Nato troops, perhaps they should come from Greece and Portugal,
which had not taken part in the bombing, along with neutral troops from Finland and
Sweden. The presence of British or American troops would make a deal impossible for
Milosevic. "Forget it," Talbott said. Nato troops were part of one command,
without national distinctions. But Bill Clinton's old Oxford room-mate noted that, for the
first time, Russia was accepting the principle of Nato troops. That must have been said
with Milosevic's approval.
Chernomyrdin then made a threat couched as an appeal. This was a critical moment for
Russia's relations with the west. He desperately wanted partnership and the west's
economic goodwill, but the disappointments of Russia's experiment with capitalism and the
Nato bombing was plunging Russia back into permanent hostility. This was the last chance -
if these three men could not agree on a common position, then he would have to walk out of
Russia would abandon its peace effort, and Moscow's anti-westerners would rule the roost.
Was Milosevic worth that?
Chernomyrdin then appealed to the Finn, saying he accepted Nato troops would have to be
part of a peacekeeping force alongside Russians. But there had to be a UN mandate - as a
former UN diplomat, Ahtisaari should surely agree with that.
Of course, replied the Finn. But as a practical matter, only Nato had the troops, the
logistics and the command system to make a peacekeeping force work, and to organise the
Chernomyrdin flew to Belgrade alone, stopping briefly to call Yeltsin and tell him there
was no shifting Nato or the Europeans. But there were two crucial breakthroughs in
principle, Chernomyrdin said. First, Talbott had accepted that some Serb toops could
remain in Kosovo, to guard the Serb monasteries and monuments. Second, both the Finn and
the American accepted "a major role" for Russian troops.
In Belgrade, where Chernomyrdin was told the rumour that Milosevic had been briefly
hospitalised - accounts differed whether it was a stroke or heart attack or nervous
breakdown - he told the Serb leader that these two western "concessions" might
be just enough to get a deal on the G8 terms. Would Milosevic agree?
There was no love lost between the two men. Yeltsin had never forgiven Milosevic for his
premature recognition of the coup plotters in the 1991putsch that overthrew Gorbachev. And
Milosevic had no faith in the pro-western Chernomyrdin since the Russian cancelled a trip
to Belgrade after the bombing of the Chinese embassy to fly to Beijing instead, and then
Moscow to see Talbott.
"Chernomyrdin just wants to get Russia back into the west's good graces. So every
Nato bomb that falls on us has a Russian stamp on it," Goran Matic, a powerful
minister without portfolio in the Left party run by Milosevic's wife, had sneered. But
Milosevic, having warned that talks might have to be held in the secret location of the
Belgrade yacht club to avoid Nato bombing, agreed to make a deal on the G8 terms. The
Americans believe he did so because of the grim news from the battlefront.
The Kosovo Liberation Army, which had already opened one road from Albania into territory
they held near Pec inside Kosovo, were opening another to the south, towards Prizren. The
Serbian 125th motorised brigade, battered by Nato air strikes, could not hold them. The
Serbs ordered in reinforcements, the 52nd artillery brigade and the elite 63rd paratroop
brigade. They were desperate to stop the KLA taking control of the crucial road between
Pec and Prizren, but Nato air power was decimating their ranks. Only this week Nato
spokesmen began calling it "the hogpen", where Serb tanks and guns were being
destroyed as soon as they moved. But by the time Chernomyrdin came to Belgrade, Milosevic
had finally understood what the full weight of a Nato armada of 1,200 aircraft could do to
his troops in Kosovo.
But when Chernomyrdin rang Talbott and Ahtisaari to say Milosevic agreed the G8 terms,
they said it was not enough. Milosevic's small print still insisted on keeping 10,000 Serb
troops in Kosovo, and refusing British or US troops. At that point, Yeltsin stepped in.
Last Sunday, he called Chernomyrdin to a meeting with his new prime minister, Sergei
Stepashin, and said he wanted a deal on the best terms Nato would offer, so long as it
meant a swift end to the bombing.
Chernomyrdin arranged another meeting, in Bonn. When Chancellor Schrsder rang Ahtisaari to
offer the venue, the Finn warned he saw little chance of success. But after his meeting
with Moscow, Chernomyrdin was upbeat, telling the Finn he was "97% sure you will come
with me to Belgrade". The meeting at the Petersberg conference centre on a hill
overlooking the river Rhine and Bonn, went on until 4am. Everything important was agreed -
the Serb withdrawal, the return of a token "few hundred" for liaison, the UN
mandate, the predominant Nato presence among the peacekeepers - except for one sticking
point. The Russian military advisers with Chernomyrdin refused Nato command and control of
the peacekeepers. Chernomyrdin tried for a compromise, proposing a neutral commander for
the force, a Finnish general, to operate under a UN mandate.
"I want you to come with me to Belgrade tomorrow to see Milosevic and put this plan
to him. I am convinced this will end the war," Chernomyrdin told Ahtisaari.
"This is the gesture Milosevic needs to accept the principles we agreed at the G8
meeting. This is the only way he can accept Nato troops." Ahtisaari refused. The
Americans would not accept such a deal, and nor would the European Nato allies. The EU,
having declared that the Nato mission and its bombing were "necessary and
warranted", was not going to take a separate line now. Talbott made one final,
telling point. President Clinton had arranged to meet his joint chiefs of staff the next
day to discuss options for ground operations.
At 4am on Wednesday, they took a break, and when they reconvened at 9.15am, Chernomyrdin
tried and failed to reach Yeltsin by phone, and went out on a limb. He overruled the
generals with him, and accepted the Finn's proposal to leave the command arrangements for
later Nato-Russian consultations, and put their differing interpretations into a footnote.
That was enough of a common position for the Russian and Finn to go to Belgrade. Talbott
then briefed the White House and Nato that he thought they might just get a conditional
agreement from Milosevic - or the Russian generals might persuade Yeltsin to withdraw
Chernomyrdin's mandate. The Russian and Finnish planes heading from Bonn to Belgrade were
delayed by a Nato air raid. When they landed, they were taken straight to a meeting with
Milosevic, and Ahtisaari read out the terms. This was the only deal on offer, he stressed.
He had no authority to improve it. The choice was to accept it now, or suffer more bombing
- and possibly a ground invasion - and accept it later.
Milosevic asked two questions. Would the UN be the authority in Kosovo rather than Nato?
Yes, said Ahtisaari, but Nato would have operational command. The second question was
whether the Rambouillet text, which Belgrade rejected as a "diktat", was still
operative. It had been superseded by the G8 deal, said Ahtisaari, and Milosevic sat back
and half-smiled. That was it. No more questions, no more haggling. The question of his war
crimes indictment had never been raised.
Ahtasaari, exhausted, went to bed, saying whatever the Serbs decided, it had better be
soon. He would leave no later than 4pm the next day. Milosevic that night held a meeting
with advisers and other Serb political leaders, who agreed to convene the extraordinary
session of the national assembly the next day. At that point, Ahtisaari realised it was
make or break; Milosevic wanted political cover, either to accept or reject.
In "the hogpen" in Kosovo, the Serb paratroops were pinned down, their mortars
hit by warplanes as soon as they opened fire, and the 52nd artillery had lost almost half
its guns. Milosevic folded, and Nato had won its first war.
In Tirana, they were holding the Miss Albania beauty contest. A 19-year-old Kosovo
refugee, Ara Mustafa, won. "This goes to show that Albania and Kosovo are one people,
one nation," she declared as she was crowned.