U.S. 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.
Clinton arrived Monday night in 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 travels to Serbia and its now-independent former province of Kosovo to encourage the bitterly divided sides to normalize relations.
From Kosovo, Clinton will bring her message to EU headquarters in Brussels, where she will also attend NATO meetings on Thursday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss European security, the situation in Afghanistan and prepare for a November summit of alliance leaders in Portugal.
In Sarajevo on Tuesday, 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've been quite clear that we believe that further reforms are necessary," Philip Gordon, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, told reporters aboard Clinton's plane.
"The Bosnians need to follow up," Gordon said. "The rest of the region is moving towards Europe, and Bosnia is going to have to overcome these ethnic divisions ... if they want to go down this path."
At the same time, Gordon stressed that Clinton would not be trying to impose reform. Instead, he said, the secretary of state "will underscore to the parties the need to move forward with the types of reforms that will strengthen their candidacies for the European Union membership and NATO membership."
Gordon 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.
Clinton's stop in Bosnia is the first by a sitting secretary of state since 2004 and her first to the country since 1996, when she traveled here as first lady after a peace accord technically ended the war.
That visit, during which she met locals and U.S. troops at a military base in Tuzla, became an issue in the 2008 Democratic primaries when Clinton said she had arrived at the base under sniper fire. That assertion was questioned by eyewitnesses and Clinton's campaign said later she misspoke when recalling a trip filled with security concerns.
But the incident was seized on by her former primary opponent, now-President Barack Obama, and may have damaged her candidacy.
After Bosnia, Clinton goes 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 are yet members of the EU.
Serbian President Boris Tadic has said he is ready to participate in the talks but will never recognize Kosovo's secession, a stance that does not auger well for the success of the negotiations. 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.
On Wednesday, Clinton moves to Kosovo for similar discussion in the capital of Pristina where she plans to also 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, Gordon said.
Clinton, who will be the first-ever secretary of state to visit an independent Kosovo, wraps up her European tour with Gates in Brussels on Thursday.