BELGRADE, Serbia – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday urged Serbia and its former province of Kosovo to settle their differences, more than a decade after NATO launched airstrikes on Serbia to halt violence against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
Clinton made the call in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the second stop on a three-nation tour of the Balkans aimed at pressing for reconciliation and reform in the region still politically splintered following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the bloody civil wars that followed.
Clinton said 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 in 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, where Clinton will visit on Wednesday, 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.
"Serbia is not going to recognize the independence of Kosovo," Tadic said, standing beside Clinton, whose husband's administration was the driving force behind the NATO bombings of Belgrade and other Serb cities in 1999. "However, we respect the rights of the Albanian people and, by respecting Albanian rights, we defend our own rights in Kosovo."
Clinton praised Tadic for his commitment to reform and human rights, his promise to work toward European integration and his support for the international court that is prosecuting former officials for war crimes committed in the 1990s. But Clinton said Serbia needed to go further, and candidly allowed that Washington and Belgrade would likely never see eye-to-eye on Kosovo.
"There are areas, as the president said, where we will not agree and foremost among them is Kosovo," she said.
Clinton noted that resolving the Kosovo dispute would aid Serbia's EU aspirations and that, in turn, would help the entire Balkans.
"No country has more to gain than Serbia," she said. "EU membership could help transform Serbia's economy and anchor the entire region in Europe."
Clinton arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo, where she called on Bosnia's ethnic groups to support political reform and tolerance or risk falling behind the rest of the region as it grows closer to Europe.
The U.S. is encouraging Bosnia to seek European Union membership and make constitutional reforms that the continental bloc has set as conditions for entry.
In particular, the U.S. is urging the government to drop a provision in the constitution that prohibits anyone other than Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats from being president, a limitation that excludes Jews, Roma and other minorities from elected leadership positions.
"These reforms are needed for their own sake," Clinton said. "But they are also needed if your country is to fulfill the goal of becoming part of the European Union and NATO."
In an address to students from Sarajevo, the epicenter of the country's bloody 1992-95 civil war, Clinton said, "Now is the time to strengthen democratic institutions, deepen peace between neighbors, and create the conditions for long-term political, economic, and social progress."
She spoke to the students at Bosnia's historic National Theater, after walking from the headquarters of the country's tripartite presidency, waving and greeting passers-by who waited for a glimpse of her.
Fifteen years after the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords ended the war, Bosnia's three main ethnic groups still disagree over the future of the country. Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and Croats want reforms to make the weak central government stronger, while Bosnia's Serb community fears that would rob them of their autonomy.
At the office of the presidency — shared by a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim — Clinton said she had encouraged the country's leadership, one-third of which will change on the basis of recent elections, to find common ground for the sake of the country's prosperity.
"I was very clear that there have to be actions taken that move the country toward greater stability," she said.
Hopes for that are slim, though. While some faces changed in the Oct. 3 vote, most Bosnians again voted along ethnic lines, reinforcing deadlock over the country's future. Although most Bosniaks and many Croats want a unified state, Bosnia's Serbs overwhelmingly support leaders who want to break their part of the country away from the rest of Bosnia.
After seeing Clinton at the embassy dedication, the secessionist-minded Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik told reporters he still does not favor a revamped constitution strengthening central government powers. Instead, he said, any changes should "give ethnic groups the right to self-determination."
At her meeting with students in Sarajevo, Clinton used an example she has offered before in urging opposing sides to come together.
"I'm often asked how could I go to work for President Obama after trying to defeat him," she said of her presidential primary opponent. "And the answer is simple: We both love our country. And at some point, that has to be the mindset that develops here."
Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.