- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

PRISTINA, Kosovo | Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday received a hero’s welcome where it was expected - Kosovo among ethnic Albanians thankful to America for leading them to independence from Serbia.

But, his visit to Serbia a day earlier may have gotten the Obama administration some unexpected allies - the Serbs, who oppose Kosovo’s independence.

In Kosovo, Mr. Biden was wrapping up a three-day tour of the volatile southeastern European region that included stops in Bosnia and Serbia.

The visit was meant to demonstrate renewed U.S. interest in a region riven by bloody ethnic wars of the 1990s, which the West accused Serbia of fomenting.

Ivan Vujacic, until recently Serbia’s ambassador to Washington, said Mr. Biden’s visit shows “America’s new interest in the region, although it definitely has larger priorities.”

“Biden’s main message in the Balkans was that the United States wants to see the region integrated into Europe,” Mr. Vujacic said.

During his visit to Kosovo, Mr. Biden said the Balkans have “a historic opportunity” to become part of “a Europe that is whole, united and at peace.”

Cheering and waving flags, thousands of ethnic Albanians lined the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, to welcome Mr. Biden and applaud U.S. support for their country’s statehood.

Mr. Biden, whose visit was the first by a senior American official since Kosovo declared independence last year, assured Kosovo’s assembly that the country’s independence - contested by Serbia and its ally Russia - was “irreversible.” That prompted thunderous applause and a standing ovation by lawmakers grappling with challenges of nation-building amid ethnic tensions.

So far, Kosovo - considered by Serbs to be the cradle of their medieval state and religion - has been recognized by 60 states, including the United States and 22 countries of the European Union.

Since the declaration of independence last year, Kosovo’s government has failed to establish its authority in the Serb-dominated north and has relied heavily on international support to prevent ethnic partition of the country.

Mr. Biden rejected Kosovo’s partition, but he also told the ethnic Albanians that they had to reach out to Serbs.

“You have a special responsibility to overcome the legacy of division, bitterness, and fear and mistrust within your country,” he said.

Serbia has vowed never to accept an independent Kosovo, and Serbian President Boris Tadic stressed the point in his comments after meeting Mr. Biden.

But Mr. Biden won unexpected sympathy from Serbia’s pro-Western leaders for insisting that Washington will not pressure Serbia into recognizing Kosovo’s independence as a precondition for “a strong, new relationship” with the United States, or for its support of Serbia’s bid to join the European Union.

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