Biden hopes to 'reset' ties with Serbia on Balkans trip

19th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

The vice president will be the highest-level US official to visit Serbia since Jimmy Carter who when he was president toured what was then Yugoslavia in June 1980.

Washington -- US Vice President Joe Biden, who heads to the Balkans Monday, will seek to press the "reset button" with Serbia, an official said, after relations plummeted over Kosovo's independence last year.

More broadly, the US administration official said, Biden is demonstrating President Barack Obama's commitment to engage with a region where Washington invested heavily in the past to end wars in the 1990s and promote stability.

The vice president will be the highest-level US official to visit Serbia since Jimmy Carter who when he was president toured what was then Yugoslavia in June 1980.

Biden will spend Tuesday in Bosnia-Hercegovina -- accompanied there by the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana -- before visiting Serbia on Wednesday and Kosovo on Thursday, aides said.

Balkans analyst Charles Kupchan told AFP that the Biden tour points to a "sense that the situation in the Balkans has been quietly slipping backwards" as the world is focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The spotlight will be on Biden's visit to Belgrade, whose long-strained ties with Washington only worsened when the United States backed the unilateral declaration of independence last year by the former Serb province of Kosovo.

"The objective in a sense is very straightforward," the administration official told reporters in a telephone conference call.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to make it very clear to the government of Serbia and to the people of Serbia that we hope to press the reset button with Serbia," the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier this year, Biden told foreign leaders at an international security conference in Germany that the Obama administration wanted to "press the reset button" with Moscow, a Belgrade ally.

Under former president George W. Bush, US-Russia ties hit a low over Moscow's military intervention in US ally Georgia, but also over US missile defense plans for eastern Europe, NATO expansion and Kosovo's independence.

The administration official said Biden will try to seek a "modus vivendi" between Serbia and Kosovo when he meets with Serbian President Boris Tadic as well as top diplomatic and military officials.

"In a sense, we're going to have to agree to disagree," he said.

"We don't expect Belgrade to recognize Kosovo's independence but we do hope and expect Belgrade will not do anything to undermine Kosovo and its efforts to build a strong, stable, functioning multi-ethnic country," he said.

Biden will try to get the Serbs to focus on the prospect of a bright future and role within the Euro-Atlantic community that will bring the country stability and prosperity, he said.

Sources quoted by the Serb media said Belgrade sees Biden's visit as a chance to reach some agreement in which Washington stops pressuring Serbia to make concessions regarding Kosovo's independence.

Biden is also expected to ask Serbia to contribute to regional stability, particularly in Bosnia, the sources said.

Bosnian Serb leaders have been resisting longstanding US and EU demands to strengthen federal institutions.

Bosnia has been split among Muslims, Croats and Serbs who have failed to agree on constitutional reforms which the US official and others say is desperately needed for the country to move towards EU and NATO membership.

The US House of Representatives last Tuesday passed a resolution calling for immediate and urgent constitutional reform in Bosnia. The resolution emphasizes that the US should appoint a special envoy to the Balkans.

The US official said Biden, on his visit to Kosovo, will "talk to leaders about the tremendous efforts they've already made to build a functioning and effective state and to protect the rights of all minorities," including Serbs.

He added there is "more work to be done" toward improving governance, the economy, contacts with the Serbs and strengthening ties with the rest of Europe.

Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Biden's trip will "try to get the region back on track of heading into the EU and NATO."


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