- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 12, 2010

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pressed Serbian President Boris Tadic on Tuesday to open talks with Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, more than a decade after NATO launched airstrikes on Serbia to halt violence against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit was part of a broader effort to seek reconciliation and reform in the Balkans, still politically fractured following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr. Tadic has said he is ready for talks, called for last month by the U.N. Security Council. But he also has said he will never recognize Kosovo’s secession, which has been recognized by most of the countries of the European Union and ruled legal by the International Court of Justice in July.

Mrs. Clinton was expected to discourage calls by Serbian officials to challenge Kosovo’s borders because the United States believes that would set a bad precedent across the Balkans.

“Going down that path would be a disaster for the region,” Philip Gordon, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, said ahead of her trip. “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.”

Mrs. Clinton arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where she called on Bosnia’s ethnic groups to support political reform and tolerance or risk falling behind the rest of the region as it grows closer to Europe.

The United States is encouraging Bosnia to seek European Union membership and make constitutional reforms that the continental bloc has set as conditions for entry.

In particular, the United States is urging the government to drop a provision in the constitution that prohibits anyone other than Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats from being president, a limitation that excludes Jews, Roma and other minorities from elected leadership positions.

“These reforms are needed for their own sake,” Mrs. Clinton said, “but they are also needed if your country is to fulfill the goal of becoming part of the European Union and NATO.”

In an address to students from Sarajevo, the epicenter of the country’s bloody 1992-95 civil war, Mrs. Clinton said, “Now is the time to strengthen democratic institutions, deepen peace between neighbors, and create the conditions for long-term political, economic and social progress.”

She spoke to the students at Sarajevo’s historic National Theatre after walking from the headquarters of the country’s tripartite presidency, waving and greeting passers-by who waited for a glimpse of her.

Fifteen years after the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords ended the war, Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups still disagree over the future of the country. Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and Croats want reforms to make the weak central government stronger, while Bosnia’s Serb community fears that would rob them of their autonomy.

“No one will create a stable and prosperous future for this country by stoking the animosities of the past,” Mrs. Clinton told political leaders at a reception at the new U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. “The only way forward lies in working together toward shared aspirations.”

At the office of the presidency — shared by a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim — Mrs. Clinton said she had encouraged the country’s leadership, one-third of which will change on the basis of recent elections, to find common ground for the sake of the country’s prosperity.

“I was very clear that there have to be actions taken that move the country toward greater stability,” she said.

Hopes for that are slim, though. While some faces changed in the Oct. 3 vote, most Bosnians again voted along ethnic lines, reinforcing deadlock over the country’s future. Although most Bosniaks and many Croats want a unified state, Bosnia’s Serbs overwhelmingly support leaders who want to break their part of the country away from the rest of Bosnia.

After seeing Mrs. Clinton at the embassy dedication, the secessionist-minded Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik told reporters he still does not favor a revamped constitution strengthening central government powers. Instead, he said, any changes should “give ethnic groups the right to self-determination.”

Mrs. Clinton will visit Kosovo on Wednesday to press her case for talks with Serbia, and she plans to call on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian and minority Serb communities to settle their differences. She is scheduled to make these appeals in the capital, Pristina, and the Serb-majority town of Gracanica.

Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and George Jahn in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.