U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got a warm welcome from large pro-American crowds in the capital of Kosovo on Wednesday as she closed out a three-nation tour of the restive, ethnically splintered Balkans.
She arrived from Serbia, which refuses to recognize the independence of its former province that seceded in 2008 after years of communal strife. Clinton is pressing leaders in both countries to set aside their differences and promote tolerance between Kosovo's minority Serbs and the ethnic Albanian majority.
Thousands of people, many waving U.S. flags, lined Clinton's motorcade route from Pristina's airport to the city center that included a long stretch on Bill Clinton Boulevard. It's named for the man many Kosovars revere for spearheading the 1999 NATO airstrikes on Serbia aimed at ending a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists here.
In between occasional billboards with Hillary Clinton's picture proclaiming "Welcome," Clinton stopped her car at a square where an 11-foot (3.35-meter) gold statue of her husband stands. Amid cheers, Clinton got out and inspected the statue, smiling broadly and posing for photos while waving at a crowd of roughly 1,000 gathered there.
"People thank you, U.S.A., family Clinton. Thank you, Hillary," read one sign.
"It's so great to be here," she said, wading into the throng to shake hands before she found a tribute of her own: a small women's clothing store called "Hillary," where she was given a jacket as a gift.
From the statue, Clinton went immediately into meetings with the leaders of Kosovo, the world's newest nation at just two years old.
Clinton urged Serbia to rethink its opposition to an independent Kosovo after meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, saying that the "status, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo are not up for discussion."
At the same time, she called on both sides to come to the table in good faith in hopes of bridging differences.
Dialogue, she said, "offers a chance for these countries to settle practical problems and overcome obstacles to being good neighbors."
The U.S. wants both sides "to come to the table with a plan ... and to lay the groundwork for a positive long-term relationship," Clinton told reporters invoking Germany and France as examples of past enemies that are now closely cooperating.
"It is our hope that in the future we can say the same about Serbia and Kosovo," Clinton said, adding that she and European officials planned to discuss ways to "structure this dialogue" on her next stop later in the day in Brussels.
Thaci, for his part, spoke of a "new phase in our relationship" with Serbia, in a message addressed to the Belgrade leadership.
"It is time to close the more than one-century long conflict between Serbia and Kosovo," he said. "The time is to cooperate and look to the future.
"I am convinced that ... the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia will conclude successfully, culminating with EU and NATO memberships for both nations, he said.
Seeking to allay fears of the Serb minority, who vehemently oppose Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Clinton then met mayors of five Kosovo Serb towns and told them that Kosovo's success was intertwined with the prosperity and viability of the country's Serbs. Washington, she pledged, would continue to support them.
Clinton already touched on the reconciliation theme while in Belgrade on Tuesday, saying rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo, combined with Serbian political reform, would put Serbia on the path to European Union membership, a role that it could use to anchor stability throughout southeastern Europe.
"That dialogue can and will benefit people in Kosovo and Serbia by addressing practical, day-to-day issues and the long-term relationship between you," she said after meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic. "It will also have a positive impact on the relationship between Serbia, your neighbors, Europe and the United States."
Tadic said he is ready for talks, called for last month by the U.N. Security Council. But leaders in Kosovo have sought a delay, saying negotiations would be more productive after elections expected early next year.
Although Tadic stressed he wants the talks to begin "as soon as possible," he also insisted that Serbia would never accept Kosovo's 2008 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.
Clinton made no secret of the fact that Washington and Belgrade are at odds over Kosovo.
"There are areas, as the president said, where we will not agree and foremost among them is Kosovo," she said.