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Biden Begins Three-Day Tour Of Balkans


U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) with Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj at Sarajevo's international airport on May 19
(RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has begun a three-day tour of the Balkans, arriving at Sarajevo airport for what is seen as a bid to show Washington's commitment in the volatile former Yugoslavia.

Biden plans to spend the day in Bosnia-Herzegovina, together with Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief. Solana has said that the visit will bring the United States and Europe together on Balkan diplomacy.

"This will be an important meeting," Solana said. "This will be the first time that together, the Americans and the Europeans, at that level, do go to Bosnia and express their common intentions to all the leaders of the country."

Indeed, Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Bosnia since President Bill Clinton's trip there in 1999. Biden and Solana are meeting on May 19 with rival political leaders from the country's Bosniak, Croatian, and Serbian communities. Biden also plans to deliver a speech in the Bosnian parliament.

Call To Enact Reforms

The U.S. vice president is expected to call on the rival leaders to enact reforms that are critical to Bosnia's hopes of joining the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Biden also is expected to tell Bosnia's two main political figures -- Republika Srpska's Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Haris Silajdzic, that they should refrain from using inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric.

Frequent public disputes between Dodik and Silajdzic have been blamed for stalling EU-backed reforms.

Sarajevo's "Dnevni avaz" newspaper interprets Biden's trip as meaning that the Balkans have, once again, been put among the top priorities of U.S. foreign policy.

To be sure, Biden's visit follows the adoption of a resolution last week in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for urgent constitutional reforms in Bosnia and the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the Balkans.

That resolution says the Dayton peace accords -- which brought an end to the 1992-95 Balkan war -- included "many compromises imposed by the need for quick action to preserve human life that have hindered efforts to develop efficient and effective political institutions."

Leading politicians from most sides in Bosnia have been receptive to the idea of constitutional reforms. The exception is Dodik, who has made it clear that he will not accept any changes that seek to centralize the powers of the Bosnian Federation at the expense of Republika Srpska's autonomy.

Belgrade Visit Crucial

In an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service early this month, Dodik said his basic stance is that he doesn't want to change the constitutional position of Republika Srpska -- and that nobody can ask Bosnian Serbs to do so.

Dodik also told RFE/RL that when the right time comes, a new Bosnian constitution has to include all the democratic achievements of the modern world -- including the UN human rights charter.

On May 20, Biden is to travel to Belgrade, a leg of his tour that is seen as critical to easing tensions in the region.

Belgrade's long-strained ties with the United States worsened last year when Washington backed Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

One unnamed U.S. official has said that Biden's visit to Belgrade would be an attempt to "push the reset button" on relations between Washington and Belgrade.

The final leg of Biden's tour comes on May 21 when he visits Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Biden is expected to urge the ethnic Albanian majority's leaders in Kosovo to build a functioning and effective state and to protect the rights of minorities, especially Serbs.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report