Clinton Pushes Bosnia To Embrace Reforms, Europe

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Bosnia on Tuesday, reaching out to Muslim, Serb and Croat politicians, as well as university students, to try to persuade them to put aside their past disputes and prepare the country to eventually join the European Union. With the EU closing off membership, it will be a hard sell to make. But Bosnia desperately needs to reform the constitution that was put in place to end the war — it achieved that aim, but has since paralyzed the political system.

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It's been 15 years since the war in the Balkans ended, but the region remains deeply divided along ethnic lines. In Sarajevo today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to carry out the reforms needed to join European organizations like NATO and the E.U. And Clinton carried the same message to Serbia, where she's hoping to jump start talks between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton seemed eager to show how much has improved in Sarajevo since the city was a battleground for Muslims, Serbs and Croats. This morning, she walked down a major boulevard that still shows the scars of the conflict in the 1990s. And she told university students that she's optimistic about the changes they can bring.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): The progress is encouraging but it is far from complete. Yes, people can now go to work and children can go to school, but there are not enough good jobs. Hatreds have eased but nationalism persists. And the promise of greater stability and opportunity represented by integration into Europe still remains out of reach.

KELEMEN: Bosnia can't get into NATO until the three ethnic groups can agree on who owns what military barracks and bases. And to get into the European Union, the parties needs to pass a whole series of reforms. The constitution that helped end the war rewarded nationalist parties, and Clinton says it now needs updating.

Sec. CLINTON: Now there needs to be what we would call a second wind, where people do not get discouraged, where they do not give up, where they do not accept the status quo, where they do not retreat into their own communities and have nothing to do with the other. And that's what I'm here to really convey.

KELEMEN: She faced tough questions, though, from students worried that the country is drifting apart, with the leader of the Serb Republic in Bosnia talking about secession.

University student Edin Hadzhi Hafizbegovic asked Clinton what the U.S. would do if an American senator or governor disrespected the American flag and nation.

Mr. EDIN HADZHI HAFIZBEGOVIC (Student): Why I'm asking this is because we do have a prime minister of Republica Srbska here, a very important figure, who is acting very disrespectful toward Bosnian flag, toward Bosnian nation statute, insignia and so on.

KELEMEN: Clinton, who met the Republica Srbska leader briefly at the U.S. embassy today, didn't answer the student's question directly. She did, though, call the idea of secession a losing proposition and urged the students to start a grassroots movement to counter such ideas.

Another student, Serdjen Kosic of the American University of Bosnia-Herzegovina, agreed that the country should remain united, but he then turned that around to question U.S. policy on Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Mr. SERDJEN KOSIC (Student, American University of Bosnia-Herzegovina): How is it not possible that these two different ethnic groups cannot unite under one flag or cannot become one country the same way that all of us are one country and the same way that all of us used to be an even greater country more than two decades ago?

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton simply pointed to an International Court of Justice ruling that said Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence two years ago was legal.

She is to visit Kosovo tomorrow and today spoke with Serbia's president, who made clear his country won't recognize the breakaway region. Clinton just wants them to start talking.

Sec. CLINTON: 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. It will also have a positive impact on the relationship between Serbia, your neighbors, Europe and the United States.

KELEMEN: There are a couple of issues that she thinks should not be on the table: Kosovo's status and its borders. As far as the U.S. is concerned, all that has already been decided.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Belgrade.

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