By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
Published: May 21, 2005
WASHINGTON, May 20 - The Bush administration, opening an initiative to stabilize the troubled Balkan states, is seeking to speed up talks to grant greater independence for Kosovo in return for strides by the Kosovo government to protect the rights of Serbs and other minorities, State Department officials have announced.
As part of the effort, R. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, will travel in the coming week to Europe and to the Balkan region to meet with officials about Kosovo and various steps that the United States wants the leaders of Serbia and Bosnia to take.
Mr. Burns said Wednesday that the eventual goal was to heal one of the largest remaining wounds from the cold war in Europe. Kosovo has remained a United Nations protectorate as part of the deal ending the ethnic wars in the mid-1990's that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
"We and our allies are entering a new stage in our policy toward the Balkans, one that will accelerate the region's integration into the European family and Euro-Atlantic institutions," Mr. Burns told the House Committee on International Relations, adding that "2005 is a year of decision for Kosovo."
The official United States position has not moved to an outright endorsement of Kosovo as an independent nation, but it has not ruled that out.
Some State Department officials acknowledged that the nearly intractable ethnic hatreds in the Balkans have been a side issue for the Bush administration, in part because of its concern about global terrorism.
Clinton administration officials, particularly the former United Nations ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, have suggested that the Bush administration was averse to trying to build on an achievement of the Clinton years, namely the bombing of Serbia and the setting up of Kosovo as a semi-independent protectorate.
A senior State Department official gave credit to Mr. Holbrooke for pressing the need for greater involvement in the Balkans and also to Senator George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who is of Serbian and Slovenian descent.
In his testimony, Mr. Burns described three main areas for the initiative.
First, he said, is the need to begin immediately discussing the future status of Kosovo.
Kosovo, a Muslim-dominated province of the former Yugoslavia, revolted after suffering a crackdown by Serbia under Mr. Milosevic. But after evidence of abuses against Kosovo's own Serbian minority, the region was put under a United Nations protectorate with its future undefined.
The new country of Serbia and Montenegro insists that Kosovo should remain part of its territory, but Kosovo's Muslim majority wants independence. Until now, the European and American approach has been that Kosovo must improve its democratic institutions and treatment of ethnic minority groups before independence can be discussed.
Mr. Burns said the United States now favored discussing the future status of Kosovo simultaneously with improvements in its democratic standards, with the hope that the improvement can become an incentive for achieving independence. Mr. Burns said the aim was to settle Kosovo's status by the end of 2005.
The second goal, Mr. Burns said, is to get the government of Serbia and Montenegro to hand over people charged with war crimes dating from the outset of the Balkan wars, particularly the Serbian leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who were associated with the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia.
Finally, Mr. Burns said, steps must be taken by Bosnia to establish a unification government that integrates the ethnic divisions in its country. He suggested that a future special envoy from Europe, assisted by a deputy from the United States, might assist in negotiating these arrangements.
Since 1999, a United Nations peacekeeping force has been stationed in Kosovo. From a peak of 40,000 troops six years ago, there are now 18,000 troops from 34 countries, including about 1,800 Americans.
"President Bush has made clear that having gone in to Kosovo with our allies, we will stay there with them until the job is done," Mr. Burns told the House committee. "We seek, of course, to hasten the day when peace is self-sustaining and our troops can come home."
But the larger goal, Mr. Burns said, is to stabilize the Balkan region so that it can take advantage of benefits achieved by other parts of Europe that lived in the Soviet sphere of influence during the cold war, but which have now established new ties and membership in NATO and the European Union.