In her last official trip before the presidential election, Hillary Clinton visited a region that she says is dear to her heart: the Balkans. During her four-day trip, Clinton encouraged the local states to stay on track with economic and political reforms and keep the goal of future European Union and NATO memberships in sight for some of them. Her trip included visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Albania and Kosovo, ensuring local governments of the continued support of the United States. For parts of the trip, the high representative of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, joined Secretary Clinton.

Image courtesy of European External Action Service, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Secretary Clinton kicked off what is likely to be her last trip to the region – she is set to retire at the end of President Obama’s first term – in Sarajevo, where she and Ashton hosted a joint press conference where Clinton called upon the region’s states to improve their diplomatic ties and build on the progress already made. However, Clinton was not shy to point out the region’s shortcomings: she urged the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to put the interests of the country first and work on bridging the ethnic differences still splitting the country today.  During her trip she also called upon Serbian leaders to normalise their relationship with Kosovo and improve dialogue with the former province, reminding them of possible talks for EU membership happening in the near future if progress is achieved. President Bill Clinton was in office when the Milosevic regime was toppled and is hailed as a hero in Kosovo for his role in ousting Serbian militia from the region in the 90s. Secretary Clinton called on all parties involved to respect the Dayton agreements and rejected the reopening of discussions about Kosovo’s territory or independence.

While most EU member states and the US have recognised Kosovo’s independence, major regional leaders such as Russia and China have so far refused. Recognition from Serbia would be an important step not only for Kosovo, but also for Serbia’s wish to join the Union, as its refusal to acknowledge Kosovo’s legitimacy is one of the main issues on which its membership hinges. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic has said that he is willing to make compromises to solve the tensions between his country and Kosovo, but expects the other side to do the same. Cooperation could lead both countries towards a desired integration into the European Union, with all of the associated profits and obligations.

With Croatia becoming the 28th EU member state next year, the organisation’s borders are moving closer and closer towards the Balkan region, which is surrounded by member states and sees the majority of its economic and political dealings as highly reliant on the inner workings of the EU. Despite the Union’s fatigue for new member states, resultant no doubt from the seemingly too hasty admittance of Bulgaria and Romania and driven by big countries such as France, even just prospects for expansion are a strong political and diplomatic incentive to at least attempt a peaceful resolution in the Western Balkans. Furthermore, integration would mean the possibility of finally coming to terms with organised crime in those regions, something that the EU deals with already, though the states are not officially part of the Union.

With recent problems and crises shaking the organisation to its core, an expansion into the Western Balkans may seem less likely.  However, with Serbia recently granted candidate status and Bosnia and Kosovo taking important steps into the right direction, membership for all three countries may be not too far off. According to Dimitar Bechev, the crisis has helped Kosovo’s position by boosting the political and economic traction of Germany, who has been influential in creating talks between Belgrade and Pristina, and forcing those countries who have not recognized Kosovo’s independence into silence, so as to not antagonise Germany.

The European Union’s partnership with Kosovo has always been one of mentoring and support, with the EU playing an important part in the country’s reconstruction and development. While the help was initially focused on reconstruction, the monetary support Kosovo now receives is mainly for institution building and economic development. The EU and Kosovo have both reiterated that they are committed to working towards a future membership for the country, however far off an expansion that includes the Western Balkans may seem.

Clinton’s and Ashton’s visit came at a crucial point: talks between Serbia and Kosovo, which had been latent since the Serbian elections in May, resumed in October under the orchestration of the EU. The renewal of talks has been accompanied by violent protests in Kosovo and ever-rising tensions in the mostly Serbian North of Kosovo. Hope remains however, that the negotiations can take up where they left off, considering certain important agreements that were reached during the talks in March, regarding for example the common border and freedom of travel. Whether the trip actually helped improve the region’s outlook on membership remains to be seen. High Representative Ashton made it a point however to reiterate that the EU, the US, and the politicians and people of Kosovo will work hard on moving forward and toward a better political, social and economic future for the country. One can only hope that the parties concerned will take her and Secretary Clinton’s advice and words seriously and that the region can move beyond its differences sooner rather than later.

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