Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 96

Intense diplomatic maneuvering continued in Europe yesterday as momentum built for a new diplomatic initiative aimed at ending the conflict in Kosovo. Western officials appeared to be placing their hopes on a possible joint mission to Belgrade by Russia’s special Balkans envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. Chernomyrdin has long been trying to fulfill the role of Kosovo mediator, but with little success.

Ahtisaari is attractive to all parties involved in the diplomatic effort to end the conflict because he hails from a European country which both is not a member of NATO and has long enjoyed cooperative relations with Moscow. The United States has also backed a mediator role for Ahtisaari, in part because Washington prefers that option to one in which special envoys for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan play a greater role in resolving the Kosovo conflict. A U.S. official in Washington was quoted yesterday as saying of Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari that “together, they look like a team capable of getting the Serbs to talk and perhaps get a process moving or at least a dialogue started” (International Herald Tribune, May 18).

Ahtisaari got an official vote of approval from the European Union (EU) yesterday during a visit to Helsinki by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who currently holds the EU presidency. “I, together with my EU colleagues, give [Ahtisaari] the support of the European Union and the EU president,” Schroeder said following talks with the Finnish president (Reuters, May 17). Schroeder is under pressure at home to push for a quick diplomatic settlement of the Kosovo conflict to end NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia. Similar pressures have arisen in Italy, where communists, environmentalists and other factions in Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema’s governing bloc are calling for a suspension of NATO’s bombing campaign (Reuters, May 17; International Herald Tribune, May 18).

Government leaders in the West and in Russia are hopeful that a three-way meeting today in Helsinki–including Chernomyrdin, Ahtisaari and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott–will finalize the joint Russian-Finnish mission. In preparation for today’s meeting, Chernomyrdin reportedly conferred yesterday in Moscow with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, James Collins. Chernomyrdin has already said that he will head to Belgrade for additional talks this week with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In remarks over the weekend, Ahtisaari suggested that he would be part of such a mission only if Russia and NATO can work out their differences beforehand on the composition of a postsettlement security force in Kosovo. This remains the major difference between the two sides, and between the West and the Yugoslav leadership.