Even as NATO steps up its air war and Moscow presses its diplomacy, Jesse Jackson's trip to Belgrade produces a dramatic announcement. Will it help or undermine the allied campaign?
By Howard Chua-Eoan
May 3, 1999
Belgrade is not a nice place to visit. Not now. Even when the skies are clear, the city wakes to a deep haze. Last week, the most ferocious in five weeks of allied attacks, the smoke issued from a bombed-out police station, from army headquarters and from the interior ministry. A television tower outside of town was toppled. Underground pipes were destroyed, leaving parts of the Serbian capital without water. Residents cower through the night, unable to sleep where errant missiles slam into homes and not-so-errant ones hit residential neighborhoods surrounding official targets. No visitor can ignore the damage--or avoid hearing the explosions and the alarms. On the second day of his visit, the Rev. Jesse Jackson quickly observed that the bombing was "intense."
Jackson, however, was once again in the wrong place at the right time. In 1983 he went to Damascus to win the release of Navy Lieutenant Robert Goodman, whose plane had been shot down by Syrian gunners as he flew over war-torn Lebanon. In 1990 Jackson helped bring home hundreds of people held hostage in Iraq. Each of those times Washington had told him to butt out; it told him the same thing last week as he prepared to negotiate the release of three U.S. soldiers held captive by the Serbs for more than a month. But after much public prayer, a meeting with the prisoners and some very loud "Nos" from no less than Slobodan Milosevic, Jackson brought a dramatic turn to a war that seemed entirely given over to the terrifying monotony of missiles and bombs. On Saturday, Belgrade announced it had decided to release the pows. In exchange for what? Give them, implored Jackson, "a night of peace from bombs."
There are far more calculations involved than that, of course. The released soldiers were expected to head for Germany not only for medical treatment and a reunion with heartsick families but also for a meeting with Bill Clinton, who will be in Europe this week. And so when he shakes the hands of Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, 24, Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, 25, and Specialist Steven Gonzales, 21, the President will have the Butcher of the Balkans to thank for the timing of the photo op.
"This really is a sideshow," a U.S. Army colonel insisted. "We need to keep our eyes on the ball." Which is to say the air war. But U.S. officials are concerned that Milosevic's decision to release the prisoners is, in effect, an appeal over the heads of military and political leaders directly to the citizenry of the NATO nations. Can a man capable of such a humanitarian act really be a latter-day Hitler, as the alliance insists? And what of the letter that Jackson will be carrying from Milosevic to Clinton? Its contents may yet complicate an already cloudy diplomatic swirl. Once again, Pentagon officers said, Milosevic has trumped NATO and wrested the initiative away from the alliance just as the weather is clearing and bombing sorties are reaching a campaign high of some 300 a day. They doubt the release would temper the campaign, but one official stressed that such decisions "are far above my pay grade."
Indeed, despite Jackson's mission and quieter diplomatic peace overtures by the Russians, there was no letup in NATO's air war. Last week the Pentagon announced that 10 additional B-52 heavy bombers would join several others launching attacks against Yugoslavia. The additional bombers will add 500-lb. iron bombs for attacks on troop concentrations, as well as precision-guided, Israeli-made missiles that carry 1,000-lb. warheads. Meanwhile, about 12 hours before word of the release reached Washington, Clinton imposed a U.S. trade embargo on the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, intent on choking off the supply of oil to Milosevic's military. The European Union's ban on oil shipments to Yugoslavia went into effect on Saturday. Said White House spokesman David Leavy: "The United States will continue to tighten the screws until our objectives are met." As for Belgrade's decision on the prisoners, Leavy said, "This does not affect the air campaign" and should do nothing to change the world's opinion of Milosevic, who, according to reports last week from refugees, has only increased the level of brutality in his ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. (Milosevic last week blamed paramilitary forces for the "bad things" in Kosovo.)
On Friday, Washington had summarily dismissed a Milosevic feeler. In an interview with United Press International, the Yugoslav President, while insisting he would "never surrender" to allied demands for a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, set forth terms for ending the conflict, including his willingness to accept lightly armed U.N. monitors. But he would not abide a military peacekeeping force made up of his country's attackers, even if holding out means more air strikes. "One day [of bombing] is too much," Milosevic said. "But what choice do we have if NATO insists on occupying Yugoslavia? To that we will never surrender ... We Serbs are as one on this life-and-death issue of national honor and sovereignty."
The issues of sovereignty and national honor took up much of the Saturday morning negotiations between Milosevic and Jackson's four-member delegation. "He began with the historic picture," says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the co-leader of the Jackson group, of Milosevic's sermon on Serbian history. "That took a while." Jackson, she told TIME, responded with an equally lengthy exposition on the private, humanitarian nature of the trip and on the value of trying to break a stalemate between the West and Yugoslavia. Says Campbell: "The sticking point was always who goes first. We went back and forth on it." She adds, "We kept telling him, 'Make a gesture, make a gesture, and we'll see what happens. We can't guarantee anything, but maybe, just maybe something will happen.'" They also appealed to Milosevic's media savvy: a prisoner release, they said, would be a smart move, "since you're very deeply concerned about your image." Jackson reiterated NATO conditions for peace, and Milosevic argued the terms of those demands, pointing out the difference between an international "presence" and an international "force." After three hours, Jackson and Milosevic talked one-on-one for 20 minutes. Says Campbell: "Those were very valuable 20 minutes."
Jackson had only been back in his room at the Belgrade Hyatt for 15 minutes when the delegation received a call asking the members to go to Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic's private residence. When they sat down, he produced a sheet of paper and said, "I'm pleased to tell you that President Milosevic has issued a decree today releasing the three soldiers."
If Jackson was an unlikely American envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin is virtually his Russian equivalent. Except that Chernomyrdin is official--Moscow's special envoy for the Balkans. The most generous thing one can say about his appointment is that it is counterintuitive. Chernomyrdin, who was Boris Yeltsin's pedestrian and obedient Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, has little international experience, except for frequent chats with Al Gore. His background is in oil and gas.
But last week Chernomyrdin stepped to center stage in Operation Allied Force. It is a strange place for a Russian: Moscow has complained vigorously about the allied air war on Serbia. But NATO's leaders believe they need the Russians. When Milosevic gives up, the thinking goes, he'll have to do it to someone. And of all the options--including Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan--Milosevic would probably prefer to surrender to someone from Moscow. Now all Chernomyrdin needs is an agreement.
The first issue Chernomyrdin will try to tackle is just what kind of force might one day occupy Kosovo. Russia understands that that force will need to be armed--something Milosevic has yet to accept--but a tussle is expected over who will actually go in to secure the province, as the Yugoslav President has made clear. Moscow hopes U.N. peacekeepers could do the job. At the moment, Washington is willing to have a U.N. "umbrella" over the peacekeeping force, with the understanding that NATO officers would be giving the orders.
However, Chernomyrdin's record on this kind of nuance is, so far, not reassuring. After his first meeting with Milosevic on April 22, Chernomyrdin announced to the press that the Yugoslav President had agreed to "big compromises." But that turned out to be no breakthrough at all, and Belgrade had to scramble to explain the snafu. Since the U.S. considers Chernomyrdin a serious diplomat, last week it sent Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to meet with the former Premier and make sure he knew exactly what the U.S. and NATO expect. Talbott made some headway. Said a senior American diplomat: "We've begun to bring them around to a more balanced view of the situation and what it's going to take to resolve it."
The troubles in the Balkans hold promise for both Chernomyrdin and Jackson. For Chernomyrdin, who has already declared his interest in running for President in 2000, a Balkan peace agreement would be a godsend--a return to the limelight after a year and a half of obscurity. For Jesse Jackson, if the return of the three U.S. prisoners proves uncomplicated, last week's rescue mission could revivify a political presence that has faded into the background in recent years--just as the Goodman rescue briefly made Jackson a plausible presidential candidate in 1984. In the end, however, a solution to the crisis in Kosovo does not lie in the skills or the luck of either the Russian or the American. If the war is in any one man's hands, that man is Slobodan Milosevic.
--Reported by Massimo Calabresi/Vienna, Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow and Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington
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