By Nicholas Wood The New York Times
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2005
BELGRADE Having receded from international attention since the ethnic wars of the 1990s, the western Balkans seem likely to return to the spotlight in the months ahead as the United States indicated it has made a substantial change of policy.
During a three-day visit to Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia, Nicholas Burns, the State Department's under secretary for political affairs, said his government was determined to "re-engage" in the region and tackle problems lingering from the earlier conflicts.
In interviews and comments to journalists over the three days, Burns said the United States saw a substantial opportunity for change in the region, as power began to be transferred to local authorities in Bosnia and Kosovo, powers that had been vested in the hands of international forces. Those forces were in charge to enforce reforms and uphold the peace.
The policy indicates a move away from agreements that succeeded in bringing about an end to conflicts but that are now widely seen by politicians and diplomats as poor foundations for stable development. Nevertheless these agreements - the Dayton Accords in the case of Bosnia and a UN Security Council resolution in Kosovo - have remained the blueprints for policy.
As a result of these agreements and lacking local political leadership the engage in reform, the region has been held back, according to Burns, who is the third-highest-ranking figure in the State Department.
"This region has been victimized, because at the end of the Cold War every other part of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union has had a chance to reform, in a peaceful, relatively peaceful environment, and most of the Balkans have not," he said.
Some of those proscribed changes are already under way.
In Kosovo, preparations for talks on the future status of the province have begun. The region's Albanian majority hopes it will lead to the creation of independent state, but most of Kosovo's Serb minority want the region to remain part of Serbia.
Burns said he expected the negotiations to begin within 30 days, and that their conclusion would transfer substantial powers to local authorities from the United Nations mission that has run the region since the end of the war in 1999.
It was the recurrence of violence across Kosovo in March 2004 that underlined the fragility of the international community's role in the Balkans. More than 50,000 Albanians attacked Serbs and other ethnic groups despite the presence of 17,000 peacekeeping troops. UN officials concluded that the violence demonstrated deep popular frustration with the failure to resolve the province's future.
"This is a pressure cooker and people are not going to tolerate another five years of not knowing who they are, what country they live in and what their future is," Burns said.
In Bosnia, the risk of renewed violence is regarded as minimal, but the country's Serb, Muslim and Croat population remain deeply divided. Since the end of the war, international officials have sought to forge a more unified state, but have made slow progress. The United States is helping to convene a meeting of Bosnia's political leaders in Washington to mark the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Accords; at that meeting, Burns said, he hoped the leaders would agree on an undertaking aimed at ceding their powers to a more unified state.
Bosnia's tripartite presidency - each ethnic group has its own president - would be replaced with a single president, and the powers of the federal parliament and prime minister would be reinforced.
At the same time, Burns suggested that there was a consensus in the international community to phase out Bosnia's high representative, the country's most senior international official, a position currently held by a former British politician, Lord Ashdown. That job was established by the Dayton Accords and the person holding it has the power to fire politicians and public officials and to pass laws.
"Ten years is a long time for a country to be under international stewardship, and it is time now to diminish the powers" of the high representative "and give the locals that authority," Burns said.
In both Bosnia and Kosovo, the speed as which these changes can take place will depend on the willingness of the Serb leadership, much of which argues that it has the most to lose.
Leaders of Bosnia's Serb Republic have persistently opposed efforts to create a more centralized state at the expense of their own "entity," as it is known.
Serbia's conservative prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is opposed to holding talks on Kosovo's future. During his visit to the region, Burns reiterated several times that the Serbian government could not veto a negotiated settlement on the province.
A Serbian government statement issued shortly after Kostunica met Burns in Belgrade on Friday afternoon, suggested any agreement should be based on compromise but that Kosovo should remain "within the existing boundary of Serbia and Montenegro."
Serbia has yet to normalize its relations with the United States, and is blocked from full membership in the European Union, over its failure to find and arrest the region's leading war crimes suspects, Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs and his military commander Ratko Mladic.
Were Serbia to hand over both men to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and accept a negotiated settlement on the future of Kosovo, it would be assured of closer ties with both the European Union and the United States.
"I think that will also be a key way for Serbia to escape its past," said Burns. "If Serbia wants to look forward, it has to look backward in order to atone for its mistakes of the 1990s."