Clinton off to Balkans to push EU integration

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is pressing political reforms to the restive Balkans with the hope that such changes will lead to the region’s full integration into the European Union and NATO.

Mrs. Clinton left Washington on Monday for Sarajevo, the capital of ethnically divided Bosnia-Herzegovina, which just held elections, to urge the country’s new leadership to make EU membership a priority. She then will travel to Serbia and its now-independent former province of Kosovo to encourage the bitterly divided sides to normalize relations.

From Kosovo, Mrs. Clinton will take her message to EU headquarters in Brussels, where she also will attend NATO meetings on Thursday with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to discuss European security and the situation in Afghanistan and to prepare for a November summit of alliance leaders in Portugal.

In Sarajevo on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton plans to meet with the three-member presidency to push for constitutional and other changes deemed necessary for EU membership. Bosnia is lagging behind other countries in the Western Balkans in making progress on such reforms, and its recent elections brought few changes to its political climate.

“We have long maintained that Bosnia requires constitutional reforms,” said Philip Gordon, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. “We regret that those reforms weren’t undertaken before this election.”

At the same time, he stressed that Mrs. Clinton would not be trying to impose reform.

“It’s not for us to hand-carry a constitution to the Bosnians,” Mr. Gordon said. “It is incumbent on them to confront the constitutional changes that are necessary, but it’s something that they’re going to have to do themselves.”

He cited a provision in the constitution that prohibits anyone other than Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats from being president, a limitation that excludes Jews, Roma or other minorities from elected leadership positions. Bosnia is still divided between those who want to see the country split up along ethnic lines and those who want to see it unified and multiethnic.

Since Bosnia’s brutal 1992-95 civil war, the country has been divided in two autonomous regions — a Serb republic and a federation of Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and Croats — linked by a weak central government. The EU has conditioned further progress toward membership on a stronger central government and a better-functioning state, but Bosnian Serbs reject the idea because they fear they would lose their autonomy.

After Bosnia, Mrs. Clinton will go to the Serbian capital of Belgrade to push leaders there for a speedy start to talks with the world’s newest nation of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is still not recognized by its former master and a number of European countries. Neither Serbia nor Kosovo is yet a member of the EU.

“We’re anxious to see the parties get on with that,” Mr. Gordon said. “Our view is these would be talks among equals, and it would be an opportunity for them both to move forward, resolving the necessary issues so that they can both move forward towards their integration into Europe.”

Serbian President Boris Tadic has said he is ready to participate in the talks but never will recognize Kosovo’s secession, a stance that does not auger well for the success of the negotiations. Mrs. Clinton also hopes to tamp down calls in Serbia for Kosovo’s borders to be challenged, as the U.S. believes that would set a bad precedent.

“Going down that path would be a disaster for the region,” Mr. Gordon said. “If you opened up the door to discussing borders and changing borders, it wouldn’t stop there, and it would raise all sorts of questions throughout the region.”

On Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton will move on to Kosovo for similar discussion in the capital of Pristina, where she plans also to promote tolerance and integration between the deeply divided ethnic Albanian and minority Serb communities. She will visit the Serb-majority town of Gracanica to stress the importance of inclusion, Mr. Gordon said.

Mrs. Clinton then will wrap up her European tour with Mr. Gates in Brussels on Thursday.

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