The President of the Republic of Finland

The article appeared in the Finnish Suomen Kuvalehti magazine on June 18, 1999.




Operation Balkans

President Martti Ahtisaari and his Finnish negotiating team wrote the blueprint for the grand-scale diplomatic operation, which opened the way to peace in Kosovo. Suomen Kuvalehti tells how it all happened.

Text by Jarkko Vesikansa

When President Martti Ahtisaari was drawn into the Kosovo peace struggle, very few could imagine the extent of his role in it. When the diplomatic struggle for peace ended a week ago, and peacekeeping operations began, it was common knowledge that Ahtisaari had more or less passed the ordeal with flying colours. But only a select few knew exactly how the goals were achieved.

As we try to unravel the significance of the part played by Ahtisaari and his team in the Kosovo peace process, we must return to the beginning of May. Ahtisaari's name first popped up on May 4th, when the Americans and the Russians realised that the negotiations were not going anywhere. Vice President Al Gore was hosting a breakfast meeting that morning in Washington. The meeting was attended by the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her Vice Secretary Strobe Talbott, Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, Gore's Special Assistant on International Politics Leon Fuerth, and Russia's Special Ambassador to Kosovo Victor Chernomyrdin with his assistants.

It was Chernomyrdin's suggestion that a third party should be brought in to speed up the negotiations – someone both the President of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic and Nato could trust. Someone suggested Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, but Albright torpedoed the idea. She came up with Ahtisaari's name, saying that Ahtisaari had clearly shown his abilities in the Namibian peace process. She also emphasised the fact that Ahtisaari had consistently supported the idea of maintaining good relations with Russia. Albright whispered one more thing into the ears of her American colleagues: Ahtisaari would not undermine Nato's demands, even though he represented a militarily unallied country.


Albright loses her cool with Annan

Ahtisaari's name didn't reach the negotiating table totally out of the blue. The Americans had already courted him during Nato's 50th anniversary summit at the end of April in Washington, trying to find out about his views. At that time the air strikes, planned to last a few days, had been going on for more than a month, threatening catastrophic results.

The Americans had been arm-wrestling with the Russians for weeks before Ahtisaari was contacted. There just didn't seem to be a compromise. Plans for a peace process had been sketched out by the truckload – but to no avail. By the beginning of May, the time was ripe for a fresh beginning. Otherwise, Yugoslavia would have been literally bombed into the Stone Age.

Not all the foremost movers and shakers of international diplomacy were happy about Ahtisaari's appearance in the ring. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in particular took it as a slap in the face. For quite some time there had been a power struggle going on between Annan and Albright. When Annan appointed the Swedish ex-Premier Karl Bildt and the Slovakian Minister for Foreign Affairs Eduard Kukan as UN Special Ambassadors to Kosovo, Albright lost her cool altogether. She felt that Annan was trying to steal a bigger part for the UN in the peace process than the US was ready to give them. She was also afraid that the UN would become entangled in Milosevic's machinations, and the whole peace process would be jeopardised.

Apart from the achievements listed by Albright, there were other indications that Ahtisaari would be suited to the position of peacemaker general. "There were several self-evident factors that resulted in the arrow pointing at Ahtisaari", says an influential Finnish international politics expert. He lists Ahtisaari's personal connections with world leaders, his part in the Bosnia peace negotiation process, the fact that he knows Milosevic, Finland's future presidency of the European Union, the fact that Finland is unallied, and her good relations with Russia.


The lines start buzzing

After the breakfast meeting of Gore, Albright, and Chernomyrdin, things started moving fast. Talbott, Chernomyrdin and the German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder all called Ahtisaari the next day, one after the other, all conveying the same message: let the action begin. Ahtisaari met Schröder first, since Germany was chairing the European Union at the time. In a meeting held in Hanover on May 7th, Schröder and Ahtisaari spent two and a half hours discussing how to begin a mediation attempt. To the 61-year old president, this meeting seemed like a good start for the peace operation as Schröder convincingly promised Ahtisaari his full support.

The following week, events started accelerating. First, the French President Jacques Chirac visited Ahtisaari. The message that he put across gave the President even stronger tools for action. Now, alongside the German Federal Chancellor, the head of another great EU country was appealing to Ahtisaari to begin solving the Russia, Nato, and Yugoslavia trilemma. "Chirac gave his staunch support to Ahtisaari's entering the peace process. It was a significant milestone", says one commentator.

At this stage Ahtisaari was still avoiding the public image of peacemaker general. In real life, the negotiating attempt was already running under full steam: the United States and Russia had committed themselves to trilateral cooperation with Ahtisaari.

Nevertheless, being a seasoned negotiator, Ahtisaari wanted a thorough idea of what his chances of success would be in the attempt. This required personal meetings with the American and Russian representatives. Even though he knew the parties' viewpoints in theory, Ahtisaari thought that meeting them face to face would give him important clues as to how to solve the worst sticking points one by one.


Ahtisaari demands concrete action

On Wednesday May 12th, the United States Vice-Secretary of State Strobe Talbott flew to Helsinki, followed the next day by the Russian Special Ambassador for Kosovo Viktor Chernomyrdin. Ahtisaari knew both men from previous meetings.

Ahtisaari deliberately wanted to find out about the parties' views separately, so that their mutual squabbling wouldn't grind the operation to a halt at the very beginning.

The negotiations at the Mäntyniemi presidential residence were also attended by the Finnish Premier Paavo Lipponen (Social Democratic Party, SDP), who had only the previous week expressed his wish that Ahtisaari should stand as the SDP:s presidential candidate. At Mäntyniemi, the party's confusion over naming their candidate was no longer discussed.

At Mäntyniemi, Ahtisaari received hope-inspiring news from Talbott, who was constantly shuttling between Moscow, Helsinki, and Washington. Talbott informed him of his agreement with the Russians on naming two expert commissions. One of them was to start concentrating on the problems of a Serb retreat and the arrival of international peacekeeping troops, while the other was to concentrate on the return of refugees. This meant that the negotiations were moving into the area of concrete action, the importance of which Ahtisaari had had to keep on and on about.

Still, no clear advances were made at the Helsinki negotiations. "The negotiations defined the framework within which a compromise might be sought", clarified a spokesperson.

The race irritates Bildt

At this stage, Ahtisaari had gathered around him a small but versatile support group, its nucleus formed by experts recruited from four areas. Counsellor Alpo Rusi, Office Manager Jaakko Kalela and Special Assistant Matti Kalliokoski joined the group from the Presidential Office. The Premier's office was represented by Lipponen's Special Aide on International Affairs Timo Pesonen, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Head of Political Department Pertti Tostila. The Finnish Defence Force sent Rear Admiral Juhani Kaskeala and Brigadier General Kari Rimpi to join the team. In military technical negotiations, Kaskeala was assisted part of the time by Lieutenant-Colonel Lauri Ovaska.

The Finns divided the workload according to their various areas of expertise. The military members of the team concentrated on the retreat of the Serb troops and the arrival of international peacekeeping troops. Torstila, representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dealt with relations with the European Union, and the other tasks – including figuring out the negotiating strategies – were left to the President's men. Timo Pesonen's job was to report on progress to the Premier and the Government. Thus, the operation had political backing at all times.

Before his team could continue the negotiations with the Americans and Russians, Ahtisaari had to deal with a disagreement between the United Nations and Nato over the Kosovo operation. In Noordwijk, in the Netherlands, on May 14th, Ahtisaari had to calm down Annan, who had worked in the UN in the 1980s under Ahtisaari, who had been an under-secretary at the time.

The meeting was supposed to be a private dinner, but it was anything but private. The media had grown increasingly curious about the meeting ever since Carl Bildt's sour comments that "he would not enter the race to Belgrade". Bildt had been appointed a UN Mediator by Annan. Ahtisaari consciously tried to avoid being branded the peacemaker of the Balkans. "I have given free consultation", is how he described his role after the meeting with Annan.

The ghost of Milosevic enters the negotiations

In the Presidential Palace on May 18th and 19th, Ahtisaari's team received their true baptism by fire at the first trilateral negotiations. Beforehand, Ahtisaari had expressed his wish that the negotiations should be over by dinner, "so everyone could go on with their other work". Because of the differences of opinion between the Russians and the Americans, however, the negotiations stretched on till 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, and had to be continued the next morning.

Negotiations were made more difficult by, among other things, the fact that the Russian delegation had no military experts. During the negotiations, however, the Russians and the Americans slowly began to believe that the main issues – the Serb retreat and the composition of the international peace keeping troops – could be solved in concord.

The Let us not fight among ourselves -ethos became more popular as Milosevic's ghost crept into the negotiations. An empty chair at the table reminded the negotiators that the true cause of the problems, Slobodan Milosevic, was absent. The empty chair became a surrogate Milosevic when Strobe Talbott asked half-seriously, pointing at the chair, "what might be the opinion of this gentleman here?"

The crack turned out to be a masterstroke. "Later on, the empty chair appeared at the table on purpose," a participant reveals. After the trilateral negotiations in Helsinki, Chernomyrdin flew to Belgrade to meet the real Milosevic. Ahtisaari was reluctant to say anything at all about meeting with Milosevic himself. But his faith in the rationality of a Belgrade visit was growing, and he no longer dismissed the idea as pure speculation. Before the Helsinki negotiations, Ahtisaari had claimed that the question of his meeting with Milosevic in Belgrade "was a bit like asking if I believed in Santa Claus".


Ahtisaari defends Nato's leading role

After travelling to Moscow on May 20th to continue the negotiations, Ahtisaari received Chernomyrdin's news from Belgrade: Milosevic's attitude was softening. But Ahtisaari thought that a lot of mediation would be required before it became wise to rush into the wolves' den that was Belgrade. He compared the situation to preliminary athletic games, when one starts mustering one's strength for the final battle, in this case a meeting with Milosevic.

Ahtisaari used the same comparison to preliminary games the next day, when he discussed the Kosovo crisis solution with Kofi Annan in Stockholm. Officially, the purpose of the meeting was "to inform Annan about the negotiations held in Moscow". In truth, it was also about something else: the job descriptions of Ahtisaari and the United Nations Ambassador to Kosovo Karl Bildt had finally been honed down to details.

The dynamics of leadership in the peacekeeping operation required a lot of work, too. Ahtisaari wanted to maintain Nato's leading role, even though the United Nations and Russia found it hard to swallow; it was "the only model working in practice", he said. The tense atmosphere of the negotiations could be seen in Ahtisaari as he was surrounded by a small group of journalists on his return from Stockholm to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport. After five minutes of generalisations on the subject of progress in the Kosovo peace negotiations, he abruptly changed the subject to the coming English League soccer game between Manchester United and Newcastle. He said he was going to attend the match.

Pivotal wrestling at Stalin's villa

The next week, on May the 26th and 27th, the negotiations continued in Moscow. This time they turned into a marathon session during which Ahtisaari and his team started feeling that all the background work was finally paying off. The participants laid the final basis for the upcoming trip to Belgrade at a villa once used by Stalin.

At the villa, Russian military representatives joined the negotiations, alongside the Minister for Foreign Affairs Ivan Ivanov. The Russian team was now in high spirits, and bolder and bolder steps were taken towards a common vision. The discussions were based on three different reports, one by the Americans, one by the Finns, and one by the Russians. Ahtisaari's proposal was a modified version of the American report, and it also formed the basis of the final draft of the peace conditions.

That evening and night, the papers were perused in great detail. The Russian, American and Finnish military representatives formed their own group, going through the details of the composition and leadership of the peacekeeping troops. Every time an issue caused serious disagreement, the matter was brought to the politicians' table.

"A lot of political clout was required, in many questions the political differences were so big", Kaskeala recollects. Thus, they slowly worked towards their goal, creating a joint proposal.

Ahtisaari went as far as describing those negotiations as "the most productive times". "Our views are getting closer, and those facts that bind us all have been recognised", he told the media.

Cooling water on the Russians' heads

The Moscow negotiations had proceeded so fast that the Finns had to double-check their negotiating strategies. During the first phase, they had mainly tried to strengthen the mutual understanding between the parties. In the second phase, they tried to de-politicise the problems concerning the Serb retreat and the arrival of the international troops. Ahtisaari continued constantly emphasising why this particular composition of the troops was best, why it was sensible to disarm the Kosovo liberation army UÇK, and so on.

Now Ahtisaari had to calm down the Russians, who were trying to pressure him into travelling to Belgrade. Ahtisaari kept repeating over and over again that they would go to Belgrade only after they had reached a satisfactory accord.

Soon Ahtisaari decided once again to change his style. Before the decisive trilateral negotiations in Petersberg, near Bonn, on June 1st, Ahtisaari started to put a great deal of pressure on the negotiating parties to come to an agreement by saying that he would go to visit Milosevic alone, if necessary. For example, in an interview for the Financial Times, he made it understood that the visit to Belgrade was more or less an accomplished fact.

This putting of pressure on the parties through the media was induced by the fact that the Russians and the Americans had reached deadlock over the composition of the peacekeeping troops, among other things. In Petersberg, the wrestling over the terms of the peacekeeping operation continued until 4 a.m., until finally an agreement – although only a weak one – was reached.

The most significant fact was Russia's acceptance of Nato as the coordinator of the peacekeeping operation. Thus, Ahtisaari could meet Milosevic to present him with just one proposal for peace terms. Both the Russians and the Americans signed this proposal. "Ahtisaari wouldn't have liked to go with two separate propositions", said a participant.

A secret channel of mediation was used to secure Milosevic's propitiousness towards the peace terms in advance. Russia and the West had already agreed in May that a Swedish-born businessman Peter Castenfelt would be used to deliver word of the coming peace terms to Milosevic. Castenfelt passed on the preliminary information to the Serbian ruler only a few days before Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin's trip to Belgrade.

Milosevic interrupted in mid-speech

In Belgrade, the negotiations with Milosevic commenced on June 3rd, immediately after Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin with their entourages had landed at the airport and travelled to the negotiating venue in a convoy of cars.

Milosevic received the Fenno-Russian group calmly and politely. Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin sat opposite Milosevic. Joining the others at the dark table sat the latest addition to Ahtisaari's team – Professor of Slavic Philosophy Juhani Nuorluoto from the University of Helsinki. He had previously briefed the team on the Serbian negotiating culture.

Ahtisaari told Milosevic that he was carrying with him a clear proposal of the terms that the international community were ready to accept. Milosevic, however, started lecturing the group broadly on the subject of Kosovo's significance to the Serbs, using several historical anecdotes as examples.

After half an hour, Ahtisaari interrupted Milosevic in mid-speech, asking if he would agree to the terms. Ahtisaari emphasised that the terms were non-negotiable, and that no concessions would be made. He reminded Milosevic that all Serbian troops would have to retreat from Kosovo.

Milosevic replied that he was taking the terms seriously. He also revealed that he had summoned the Serbian Government to a meeting the same night. "Tomorrow the Yugoslavian Parliament will also meet for an extra session", he added.

Ahtisaari was satisfied, even though he still mistrusted the word of Milosevic and his henchmen, after having listened to them in 1992–93 when he was the leader of the mediator team on the Bosnian war. He turned down Milosevic's invitation to a joint dinner and urged him to "go talk to his own people".

In Belgrade, the Finns experienced what it was like to stay in a town in wartime. The party was accommodated in the old royal castle, now converted into a state guesthouse, and the sounds of battle penetrated even the castle walls. "The electricity kept cutting off, alarms were sounding, and the anti-aircraft cannons were booming," Juhani Kaskeala reminisces.

Meeting Talbott at the airport

Next morning, it seemed that a political agreement on the Serbian retreat was at hand. Ahtisaari met Milosevic twice. On the second occasion, shortly after 1 p.m., Milosevic told him that Yugoslavia would agree to the peace terms.

Ahtisaari left for the airport immediately with his entourage. In Cologne, they were met by the leaders of the European Union member states, gathered there for an EU summit. According to protocol, Ahtisaari should have told the Belgrade news first to the head of the EU Presidency, Gerhard Schröder of Germany. But Strobe Talbott was waiting for him at the airport. Ahtisaari got into the limousine in which Talbott was already seated, and told him that Milosevic had accepted the peace proposal, which was based on the principle "Serbs out, refugees back".

A hero's welcome awaited Ahtisaari at the summit venue. The day culminated in a press conference, with Ahtisaari as the main attraction. Nor did he shy away from the press, as he told them about his meeting with Milosevic. He gave a very detailed account, and also passed on the glory to Gerhard Schröder sitting next to him, calling the coming Balkan aid programme (the stabilisation package) "the Schröder package". After the press conference, a BBC journalist summed up the atmosphere of the event by sighing, "what a fascinating news conference!"

The last mediation

On Sunday June 6th, Ahtisaari was due to travel to China, but he had to postpone it until the following day, because the Serbian generals and Nato could not reach an agreement over the execution of the peacekeeping operation. On the Monday, Ahtisaari went to Bonn to gather momentum. That night, he finally managed to fly to Beijing, where his party stayed for only five hours, trying to talk the Chinese leaders into accepting the United Nations' resolution. But the final climax of the Kosovo operation took place at the military negotiations, being held in Macedonia at the same time.

According to one of the participants, Rear Admiral Juhani Kaskeala, the negotiations were held "in good spirit". All the same, there was friction. As late as Tuesday night – before the United Nations' resolution – the negotiations nearly ran aground, as the Serbs held on to their demands with bovine stubbornness.

One last time, Ahtisaari was brought in as mediator. He passed on the Western points of view directly to Milosevic, who had learned to trust him. The phone conversations were made easier by the fact that Milosevic speaks excellent English.

Without Ahtisaari's constant contact with Milosevic and the Western leaders – the Nato Secretary General Javier Solana, the British Premier Tony Blair, the German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the representatives of the United States – the pitfalls of the negotiations could hardly have been avoided. "I contacted the President immediately every time the negotiations hit a rough patch. He in his turn contacted Milosevic and the US State Department", Kaskeala recalls.

Sleeping it off with a vengeance

The military technical negotiations faced the danger of getting stuck in a vicious circle. Because of the opposition by Russia and China, the United Nations Security Council could not process the resolution on Kosovo before the Nato air strikes had ceased. Nato on the other hand did not want to stop the air strikes before the Serbian troops proved that they were retreating from Kosovo.

The Serbs were afraid of a security vacuum, causing the Kosovo Serbs to face the revenge of the Albanians, if the troops withdrew. The United Nations resolution, the cessation of the Nato air strikes, the commencement of the Serbian troop withdrawal, and the arrival of the peacekeeping troops led by Nato all had to click into place simultaneously.

After all the pieces finally had fallen into place, Ahtisaari's team could at last exhale. Several of the team members travelled to their summer cottages for some rest and sleep. They had been suffering from sleep deprivation, because a diplomatic operation of this scale was not run on a nine-to-five basis. The mental pressure had also been great, since the attempt to mediate could have been derailed at any time and thus failed. Ahtisaari travelled to his summer residence in Naantali. The hottest weekend of the early summer had begun.

Journalist Silja Lanas Cavada assisted in the writing of this article. Several people who participated in the operation were interviewed.

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