Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Balkans next week, for the first time since taking office. With multiple foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration, the Balkans have been on the diplomatic back burner. Secretary Clinton will highlight the United States' commitment to the region's aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration, address lingering issues in Bosnia and urge a solution to the difficult problems between Serbia and Kosovo. She will have talks with leaders in those countries, but also representatives of civil society and citizens' groups.
"I am very much looking forward to my visit to both Belgrade and Prishtina," said Clinton.
The visit comes at a time when Kosovo and Serbia are expected to start talks to smooth over issues, that Secretary Clinton says are difficult to resolve. Serbia has not yet recognized Kosovo's independence, which it declared in 2008. "The European Union and the United States stand ready to assist and facilitate, to support and cajole that the parties do reach these agreements with each other. But ultimately, it is up to the leaders and the people that will have to come to a decision about their future," she said.
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, is a senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He says it is unlikely the visit will bear any immediate results. "But what I hope you will see is a commitment from the United States, from Europe, and from the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to work on long term solutions, to work towards the betterment of the economy, so that people are better off, to work towards European integration, to solve practical problems," he said.
Ambassador Volker says he hopes Secretary Clinton's visit will re-energize efforts to bring all of the Balkans region into the mainstream.
Ambassador Frank Wisner, a career diplomat, agrees the trip is important. Wisner was the US representative during international mediations between Belgrade and Prishtina in 2007. He says Clinton should urge Kosovo's political factions to present a united front toward Serbia, especially in light president Fatmir Sejdiu's recent resignation and the prospects of elections early next year.
"The second critically important issue for the Secretary to focus on is the continued path of recognition of Kosova. Seventy nations have recognized Kosova; more need to come along to establish in the eyes of the world a legitimacy," he said.
After the International Court of Justice ruled in July that Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence two years ago was not illegal, Serbia said it would bring the issue to the United Nations. But in a last minute deal, Belgrade agreed to drop its challenge to independence, opening the way to a resolution calling for dialogue between parties.
The State Department says those talks will be on practical issues and among equals, and that the US will play an active role.
Ambassador Kurt Volker says the Serbian government has been very constructive in the last few years. "And I think that continuing to reach out and engage Serbia, both bilaterally, through the Partnership for Peace of NATO and EU's engagement with Serbia is also important," he said.
Ambassador Wisner acknowledges that Serbia may not recognize Kosovo for a long time. But he believes Prishtina and Belgrade should accommodate one another in the meantime, on issues of mutual interest, allowing the Western Balkans to settle down.
"That should be the objective of the two sides when they actually meet. It should be what we concentrate American attention on encouraging Kosova and Serbia to come together and it should be at the heart of the accommodation that the European Union should aspire to when it continues its discussions on the EU membership for the two countries," he said.
Steven Meyers, a professor of National Security Studies and Political Science at the National Defense University in Washington, says Clinton might offer to set up US diplomatic offices and officers for the talks. "But I am not optimistic or encouraged that the talks will move very quickly or that they will move towards exactly the end that the United States wants to see," he said.
Secretary Clinton will also visit Bosnia, where the October 3 elections appear to have left the three-person presidency deadlocked over the country's future - with two leaders of the ethnically-divided nation advocating unity and a third pushing for its breakup. "We need a new impetus for progress in Bosnia. We need civil society groups to work on an interethnic basis, to try to bring society together. We need a new focus on governing institutions which are weak. Hopefully her visit combined with the European Union can stimulate this kind of interest in the region again," he said.
But Professor Meyer is skeptical. He says the American position for 15 years has been to urge compromise, but adds that the reality of Bosnia's situation makes that difficult. "The United States is very hard over on the position that Bosnia must stand together as a unitary state. It never has been a unitary state by the way but it must become a unitary, centralized state and frankly that is just not going to happen," he said.
Secretary Clinton starts her tour on Monday with the first stop in Bosnia-Herzegovina, followed by visits to Serbia and Kosovo. She then travels to Brussels where she will participate in a NATO ministerial meeting and hold meetings with senior European Union officials.