U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Sarajevo, the first leg of a three-day trip to the Balkans in an effort to underscore U.S. commitments to regional peace and increased Euro-Atlantic integration for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo.
In Sarajevo, as well as in Belgrade and Pristina, the top U.S. diplomat will meet with heads of state and senior officials, as well as members of civil society.
Speaking at the State Department ahead of her trip, Clinton said she was eager to visit the region and that encouraging and "cajoling" Serbian and Kosovar leaders to begin direct diplomacy will be on her agenda.
"I am very much looking forward to my visit to both Belgrade and Pristina and the opportunity not only to speak with leaders, but also with citizens, because it's important that we keep the goal of that [European] future in the minds of both Serbs and Kosovars, [and] because there are difficult issue that they will have to resolve," she said.
"The European Union and the United States stand ready to assist and facilitate, to support and cajole, that the parties do reach these agreements with each other," Clinton added.
Vice President Joseph Biden paid a highly publicized visit to the same region in May 2009.
Talks With Pristina
Improved relations between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo are regarded as key to regional stability and a prerequisite to deepening each country's Euro-Atlantic integration.
In early September, Belgrade signaled its readiness to engage in direct dialogue with Pristina, despite a vow by the government never to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.
In July, the International Court of Justice ruled that Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law. Seventy countries, including the United States, recognize Kosovo's independence.
Belgrade's decision to sit down at the negotiating table, however, has been hampered by domestic events in Kosovo. In late September, Fatmir Sejdiu stepped down as president of Kosovo after the country's highest court ruled that he was in violation of the constitution by serving as head of state while also leading his political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo.
During an October 8 conference call with reporters to preview Clinton's trip, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon said he didn't expect talks between Pristina and Belgrade to begin before a new president was chosen.
Gordon said that in Pristina on October 13, Clinton will try to lay the groundwork for successful talks with Belgrade in meetings with acting President Jakup Krasniqi, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, and Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni. She will also meet with women's groups, youth, and civil-society leaders.
The U.S. secretary of state will also travel to Gracanica, an ethnic Serbian municipality near the capital, to meet with local officials, a trip Gordon said was aimed at reassuring the Serbian minority in the majority ethnic Albanian country of the U.S. commitment to equal representation for all ethnic groups.
"She's going to go there to meet with municipal leaders who are Serbs, and this is a sign of our engagement with all communities in Kosovo," Gordon said. "We have been absolutely clear from the start that we strongly support Kosovo's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, but we have also encouraged Kosovo to make sure that all ethnic groups are appropriately represented."
Mladic Case To Be Raised
Clinton's visit to Kosovo will come after she visits Serbia, where she will hold meetings with President Boris Tadic, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, and Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac.
Gordon said Clinton is likely to raise the case of Ratko Mladic, the fugitive former military commander who is accused of committing genocide and other crimes during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. He is believed to be in hiding in Serbia.
"I'm sure the secretary will raise the issue of Mladic with her Serb counterparts," Gordon said. "This remains a very high priority for the United States -- to see Mladic brought to justice. We have been working with Belgrade on that agenda, [and] it's our impression that the government of Serbia is making a serious effort to find him."
In Sarajevo, the State Department said Clinton would encourage Bosnians to try and overcome internal divisions. He said Clinton would encourage Bosnia's leaders to push forward with reforms that could move the country closer to eventual membership in the European Union and NATO.
Gordon added that it was "fair" to say that the political process is stalled in Bosnia because of ethnic rivalries.
October 4 elections for the country's three-person presidency resulted in victories for moderate Bosniak and Croatian leaders Bakir Izetbegovic and Zeljko Komsic, while Nebojsa Radmanovic, who backs Bosnian Serb separation from the country, also won.
Gordon said Clinton would meet with members of the presidency and possibly also with Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia's Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, among other officials.
Clinton is also scheduled to meet with Valentin Inzko, the high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who is charged with overseeing the implementation of the Dayton accords that ended the civil war in the 1990s.
Gordon told reporters that throughout her trip, Clinton's main message to Balkan leaders would be that their countries' "rightful place" is one within the Euro-Atlantic structure -- something they can achieve through political compromise and democratic reforms.
He said Clinton would discuss EU membership prospects for the Balkans with European leaders in Brussels when she heads there on October 14.