- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton toured a Serbian Orthodox church in Kosovo on Wednesday as she pressed America’s close ally to step up its minority outreach while trying to convince ethnic Serbs that they have a home in Europe’s youngest nation.

At the St. Nicholas Church in Kosovo’s capital, the site of anti-Serb riots eight years ago, Mrs. Clinton greeted members of the Serb minority who have returned to Kosovo after years abroad despite continued interethnic tensions.

In Pristina, she also joined the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, in seeking to advance talks between Serbia and its former province so both can one day join the 27-nation EU.

The U.S. hopes Kosovo also will become a member of NATO, and it hopes stability across the region will end a process of Balkanization that began with the breakup of Yugoslavia two decades ago and which minority groups in Bosnia and Kosovo threaten to continue.

One stumbling block is the fate of 60,000 Serbs in northern Kosovo who reject their national government’s authority, and instead seek independence or incorporation into an expanded Serbia.

Washington and Brussels say neither is possible, and are hoping future agreements between Kosovo and Serbia on issues such as freedom of movement, joint customs control, utilities and government services will convince ethnic Serbs that they will be protected in Kosovo and not cut off from friends and family across the border.

“The United States is firmly committed to Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to seeing the rule of law extend throughout Kosovo,” Mrs. Clinton said, speaking to reporters alongside Ms. Ashton and Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

“We oppose any discussion of territory changes or reopening Kosovo’s independent status,” Mrs. Clinton said. “These matters are not up for discussion. The boundaries of an independent, sovereign Kosovo are clear and set.”

But she said Kosovo’s government and people needed to embrace changes if they are to move forward more than decade after NATO bombed Serbia to stop a war between Kosovo’s predominantly ethnic Albanians and Serbs who consider the area the cradle of their statehood and the Christian Orthodox religion.

Mentioning the statue of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in Pristina’s downtown near a store named “Hillary,” Mrs. Clinton called Kosovo’s future a deeply personal cause.

Although the U.S. is only helping in the normalization process with Serbia, Kosovo remains a bastion of pro-American sentiment, and the U.S. voice there carries weight. Mrs. Clinton urged Kosovo’s leaders to address the concerns of Serbs so an environment emerges where “people of all backgrounds have a chance to succeed.”

But she stressed that ethnic Serbs need to step forward as well and embrace their country, calling for “not only changes by the government, but also by the people.”