Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Bosnia

May 19, 2009 7:42:09 AM PDT
Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Bosnia Tuesday, the first stop of a three-day Balkan trip aimed at demonstrating an intensified U.S. engagement in the Balkans. Biden landed in Sarajevo, where he is scheduled to meet Bosnia's three-person presidency, address parliament and meet separately with the country's two staunchest rivals -- Bosniak leader Haris Silajdzic and Milorad Dodik, head of the country's Serbs.

Biden's visit is being met with mixed feelings.

Bosniaks are eager to see the U.S. get more involved in Bosnia. But Serbs have scheduled protests to tell Washington to back off.

After more than three years of war, the U.S. brokered a peace agreement in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, that preserved the country's international borders but divided it in the two ministates -- one for the Bosnia's Christian Orthodox Serbs, the other shared by Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. The two are linked into a state by common institutions.

The agreement proved to be good enough to stop the fighting but not to ensure a functioning country.

For years, Bosnia has been blocked on its path toward European Union membership mostly by quarrels among Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats over how to enter the 27-nation bloc -- as a unified country or ethnically divided as it currently is.

The Serbs say Bosnia can enter the EU only as a loose federation of two or three ethnic-based ministates. Bosniaks and Croats, meanwhile, are pushing for unification. Due to the differences, the process has stagnated.

Now, the U.S. administration wants to bring "a new focus, a new sense of energy, a new activism with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region as a whole," the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English, said last week.

Washington wants to help people of the region take their place in the EU and NATO, he added.

Underscoring this goal, Biden is traveling to the region with Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for constitutional reform in Bosnia and the appointment of a special U.S. envoy to the Balkans. The envoy should work with the EU on facilitating reforms at all levels of Bosnia's government and society.

On Wednesday, Biden will fly to Serbia, before wrapping up his tour in Kosovo on Thursday.

In Serbia, Biden's visit is widely viewed as a chance for a fresh start following years of strained ties.

But many still view America as anti-Serb. The mistrust stems from the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia that ended Belgrade's rule in Kosovo, and also from Washington's backing of the province's independence.

In February 2008, angry nationalists smashed and set on fire the U.S. embassy in Belgrade in protest at U.S. support for Kosovo's statehood.

Nationalist parties have openly opposed Biden's visit, saying it amounts to "humiliation" of the country. However, there have been no major protests so far.

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