Bush Administration Offers Carrot to Serbia

Serbia's president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sign an agreement that paves the way for U.S. military cooperation with Serbia. It's part of the Bush administration's effort to promote reforms in that country. The cooperation comes despite the fact that Serbia has yet to turn over a high-profile war-crimes suspect and is still taking a hard line in talks on Kosovo.

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The president of Serbia and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement today that paves the way for U.S. military cooperation with Serbia. It's part of the Bush administration's effort to promote reforms in that country.

The cooperation comes despite the fact that Serbia has yet to turn over a high profile war crimes suspect and is still taking a hard line in talks on Kosovo. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Serbian President Boris Tadic began his trip to Washington on Capitol Hill yesterday, stopping by the office of George Voinovich - a Republican senator from Ohio. Voinovich has helped arrange a U.S. military training program for Serbia.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): We're going to be sending the Ohio National Guard to Serbia to try and help modernize the Serbian forces.

KELEMEN: He says Ohio ran a similar program in Hungary, which is now a NATO member, and Voinovich clearly has high hopes for Serbia's potential to join western institutions.

Senator VOINOVICH: This is just the beginning of a lot of partnerships that the United States is going to have with Serbia. We love the Serbian people. My relatives are there - of course I love them.

KELEMEN: But there are some major sticking points. First of all, some U.S. aid to Serbia is on hold because the government has yet to come to terms with its past and hand over the indicted war criminal Radko Mladic. President Tadic says he is trying to do something about that.

President BORIS TADIC (Serbia): We have action plan and I'm expecting - I'm expecting, really I'm expecting as soon as possible delivering of Radko Mladic to the Hague.

KELEMEN: The U.S. seems eager to support President Tadic who is viewed as the pro-Western face of the Serbian government. But a long-time Balkans watcher -Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace - says so far the U.S. is not getting much in return. He says Serbia has been recalcitrant in talks on the future of Kosovo.

Mr. DANIEL SERWER (Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace): They've painted themselves into a corner by making Kosovo an issue of national identity for themselves. It seems to me that our diplomacy needs to get a little bit more effective.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials are careful not to go on record supporting Kosovo's independence, but officials say privately that it's clear that's where international talks on the issue are heading. President Tadic came to Washington with a message about this, granting the mainly ethnic Albanian region independence - he warns - could encourage separatists around the world.

President TADIC: From time to time a simplifying solution is very good. But in this case, that can be very, very dangerous - very dangerous. I'm not talking only about Serbia. I'm talking about regional stability. I'm talking about stability in all other regions in the world.

KELEMEN: Senator Voinovich says he tried to persuade the Serbian president to simply push for more rights for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and not worry so much about the region's status.

Senator VOINOVICH: Part of the problem in that part of the world is they keep going back to the past. And what so many of them don't realize is it's the future. If everybody's in NATO, then you can forget about all of the wars they've had with each other because they're all brothers and sisters under NATO.

KELEMEN: NATO bombed Serbian troops in 1999 to stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. Keeping the region has since become a rallying cry for many Serb politicians. The U.S. and its partners have been hoping this would be the year that the issue would finally be resolved. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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