New Salesman for the Peace Plan

  • Selling peace in the Balkans is a tough proposition. But in the complex talks between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and their Serb rulers that adjourned last week in France, peace found a new promoter: Veton Surroi, a 37-year-old ethnic Albanian. The negotiations ended on a difficult note. Surroi and the other Albanian delegates agreed to a peace plan that would allow them limited self-rule for three years. As part of their agreement they made an unusual request--that they be allowed two weeks to return to Kosovo to sell the idea to their fellow Albanians. It won't be an easy job.

    The deal Surroi helped broker in France looks good on the surface for the Kosovars. After a year of fighting, they would be free of Yugoslav repression. The proposed self-rule would include control over government finances, locally maintained police forces, the removal of Serb troops and the presence of 28,000 NATO troops to ensure stability. Kosovars would feel as if they had their own nation, but they would remain a part of Yugoslavia.

    That tie to Yugoslavia remains a sticking point. A vehement faction inside Kosovo demands nothing short of independence, and in its eyes the agreement falls short, especially since it doesn't include a Kosovar referendum on independence after the three years are up. During the French talks, the absence of a referendum almost destroyed the chance for a compromise--until Surroi, by force of charisma and will, turned the tide.

    The emergence of Surroi as a rational center to the deal has been a surprise. As recently as last October, Surroi, the publisher of Kosovo's largest Albanian-language newspaper, was described by State Department emissaries as "vicious" and "unrealistic." Says a relieved U.S. official: "He turns out to have real leadership qualities and real political courage." Surroi, a stocky, square-jawed intellectual who smokes a pipe and talks in a gravelly monotone, is the son of a former ambassador from Yugoslavia to Mexico and Spain. His global upbringing gave him fluency in Spanish and English in addition to his native Albanian and Serbo-Croat. He is popular with diplomats. "Unlike the other [ethnic Albanians], he speaks the language of foreign policy," says an observer.

    Surroi is a realist about the deal and the prospect for pinning down rebel support. But he thinks he has a pitch that can work. "This is not an agreement to form an independent state of Kosovo," he says. "[But] it is a historic opportunity for Albanians. It will be the most dramatic change Kosovo has ever seen."

    If it happens. Fighting last week threatened to undermine those rebels who back the deal. And the delay has given Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic a chance to deploy 4,500 additional soldiers, about 60 tanks and other heavy armor around Kosovo. In Washington there was worry that the troops looked like a cocked fist. As if peace needed another bad omen, the talks are set to restart on March 15--the infamous ides of March. Despite that, hope remains that the next two weeks will give Surroi and his fellow delegates the chance they need to praise peace in Kosovo, not to bury it.