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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Southeastern Europe
Barack
Barack Obama
Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Southeastern Europe
May 15, 2009
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Via Conference Call

2:20 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Thanks to everyone for joining the call. It's a good opportunity to run you briefly through the Vice President's trip to the Balkans next week and maybe highlight some of the high points of the schedule and also talk a little bit about what we hope to accomplish, and then take some questions.

There are three pieces to the trip. The first piece will be in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday. And he has a packed schedule there that starts with a meeting with the Bosnian tri-presidency that moves to a joint meeting with the governing coalition. He's looking forward to having some time also with President Dodik, and also with Haris Silajdzic, who he's known for a long time. There will be an address to the Parliament in Bosnia, and then an opportunity for the Vice President to spend some time with our embassy and its staff.

And one of the important pieces I just want to highlight on the Bosnia portion of the trip is that he will be accompanied in Bosnia by the European Union's senior foreign policy official, Javier Solana, as well as by the High Representative, Valentin Inzkov. They'll be with him for all of those meetings throughout the day.

On Wednesday, we move from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Serbia. And there we're looking very much forward to being received first by President Tadic. He will meet with the President. There will be a larger meeting with the President and his cabinet. And then there will be an opportunity for the Vice President and President Tadic to make brief statements to the press. The Vice President will also meet during the day with the Defense Minister and the Chief of the Armed Forces. He'll meet with our embassy staff, as he always likes to do, and will conclude the evening with a dinner hosted by President Tadic and members of the government and members of the community in Belgrade -- business, civil society, et cetera.

And then finally, the last piece of the trip is on Thursday, and that will take us to Kosovo. And in Pristina, the Vice President will have an opportunity to meet with the President, the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister and the Assembly Speaker. He will be addressing the Assembly in Kosovo. And he'll also have an opportunity to go out to Camp Bondsteel to speak to and meet with our troops. And there are probably some other events during the Kosovo portion that we'll be able to talk about next week.

And that's a very brief and broad snapshot of the trip. Let me just talk briefly if I may, and then take your questions after that, about what we hope to accomplish.

Starting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the fact that the Vice President is going is evidence that we are looking to demonstrate intensified U.S. engagement in the region, starting with Bosnia; and in Bosnia, to demonstrate our unequivocal support for Dayton, for Bosnian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and for the state-building reforms that still need to be accomplished in order for Bosnia-Herzegovina to move toward NATO and EU membership.

The Vice President is going to underscore to the leaders he meets with, from all sides, the need to work across ethnic lines to build consensus on reforms moving forward, and also to fulfill the conditions required to close the office of the High Representative, and transition, as I think most of you know, to the EU. And as I mentioned, he will be accompanied throughout by Javier Solana and Valentin Inzkov.

Moving on to Serbia, the objective in a sense is very straightforward. 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 be able to press the reset button with Serbia -- an opportunity to make it clear that we see and we want a very positive future for Serbia in the Euro-Atlantic community, and as a leader in the region. In fact, it's hard to imagine a future for the region without Serbia playing a major role -- a future that is positive and productive. And that's the message that the Vice President will want to underscore.

Obviously, we have some differences that we're not going to resolve, particularly over Kosovo. But we think there's an opportunity for a new beginning; to move toward a closer, more constructive and cooperative relationship that can move Serbia toward the Euro-Atlantic community and the institutions that go along with that.

And finally, the last piece of the trip -- Kosovo. There the Vice President will have an opportunity to underscore our commitment to a unified, independent, multiethnic Kosovo. He'll be talking to the leaders of Kosovo about the tremendous efforts they've already made to build a functioning and effective state, and to protect the rights of all minorities.

There's more work to be done on improving governance, on the economy, on meaningful outreach to Kosovo Serbs, and also strengthening relations with the rest of Europe. But his visit there will be underscoring our strong support for a unified, independent, and multiethnic Kosovo.

So those are really the highlights of the trip. I think it's important in one final sense, which, as I think many of you know, the Vice President has a long and deep personal history with the region in the 1990s. His leadership in the Senate in efforts to end violence and ethnic cleansing first in Bosnia, and then in Kosovo, I think are well known.

And the fact that he and the President decided that he should go now to the Balkans, particularly given his engagement, is evidence of the desire here within the Obama-Biden administration to demonstrate, in a sense, that we're back; that the Balkans is very much a key part of our agenda; that the tremendous investment that the United States and European countries made in the Balkans in the 1990s to move it away from ethnic cleansing and from violence and from division -- that investment is one that we care about and that we want to move forward on.

And the Vice President, by his presence there, is going to demonstrate I think the administration's commitment to very strong United States' support for moving all three countries toward a future in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Let me stop with that and take any questions. Thank you.

Q: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I think I heard you right -- and I apologize again because again it was breaking up -- I think you were asking about the last time the Vice President was in the region. And that was as senator in 2001. He was there many times in the 1990s, starting, actually, back in '93, he visited Bosnia and, in fact, authored a report back then after that visit that advocated lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia. And that led ultimately to the adoption of the lift and strike policy by the Clinton administration. And then there were numerous trips after that throughout the 1990s, to Bosnia, to Kosovo, and the last trip I believe was in 2001.

And again, I apologize because I didn't hear the question clearly, but that's what I think you were asking.

Q: Good afternoon. Are there any new and different signs of American foreign policy concerning the Balkans?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. I think that there are. I think, first of all, the fact, as I said, the Vice President is going is a very strong sign of our engagement in all three countries and in the region: a strong desire on the part of the President and the Vice President to engage the United States in the work of, in the case of Bosnia, of sustaining Dayton and pursuing necessary reforms and moving toward NATO and the EU; in the case of Serbia, making it clear how much we welcome and desire a strong relationship with Serbia, and Serbia getting into a strong place in the region and in Europe; and in Kosovo, our strong support for Kosovo's sovereignty, independence as a unified, multiethnic state.

So I think, in a sense, the trip itself is the message; the fact that very early on in this administration, after I think a period in which the United States was not particularly focused on the Balkans -- that that in and of itself is indicative of a refocus on the region and on different countries in the region.

There will be some specific things that emerge I think out of each visit, and I'll let those emerge as they emerge during the Vice President's visit. But the main point really is that, in a sense, the United States is back; the focus that we had in the 1990s on the region is back, but it's back in a different way. Thankfully, we are dealing now with efforts in all three countries to help them move toward a strong future with the United States, with Europe, with NATO and the EU. That's the effort.

Q: Thank you very much. I basically have two issues that I wanted to raise. One would be that in this time could there be a token -- for this refocusing, could there be an expectation that the Vice President could announce a possible U.S. envoy to the Balkans? That would be the first one. And the second issue is, is there a larger dimension to this visit? I remember the Vice President -- (inaudible) -- Kosovo declared independence -- he had an op/ed in which Kosovo's independence was taken like a rapprochement to the Muslim world. So could this be sort of a logical blueprint to possible rapprochement between -- (inaudible) -- and Israel?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. In terms of any specifics that emerge from the trip, I'm going to let those, as I say, emerge in their own time. And so if there are any announcements of anything along the way, the Vice President will handle those. So I really can't answer your question one way or another. On an envoy, that's something that's under consideration, but there is no decision on that.

And in terms of the larger message, look, I think that in many ways, the actions and efforts of the United States during the 1990s to go to the assistance and aid of people who were the victims of ethnic cleansing and who were under fire and who, in two cases, happened to be Muslims -- in Bosnia and then in Kosovo -- should have spoken volumes. And I think now, as I said, thankfully, we're in a totally different situation where both Bosnia and Kosovo have gotten through incredibly difficult times, and now we're in a phase where their efforts are to build strong, functioning states that can move toward integration in all of the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community.

But there, too, I think that will speak volumes. When you have a strong Muslim community in Bosnia, of course, and a majority Muslim population in Kosovo, I think it does send a message about the future as we see it that includes very strong and positive relations between our country and other countries, including countries that have strong Muslim populations. And that happens to be the case with both Bosnia and Kosovo.

But, that said, we're also very much approaching the relationship with all three countries, in a sense, in and of themselves. The missing piece in a Europe whole and free is exactly that part of Europe. And to complete the picture, to complete the puzzle that many previous administrations have sought to complete and many countries in Europe have sought to complete of this Europe whole and free involves getting the Balkans right or, more accurately, helping the countries in the Balkans make progress and become strong, self-sustaining democracies.

And that's really, at heart, what this is about. This is about completing that picture of a Europe whole and free. This has been this piece. We've made huge progress in -- since the 1990s. But because I think we haven't been as focused on the Balkans in recent years, maybe some of the momentum, for example, in Bosnia has been lost or, in some cases, reversed. Kosovo is newly independent. It's an opportunity with Serbia, I think, to move the relationship in a very positive direction.

So that's really the effort. It's to complete that picture of a Europe whole and free.

Q: Yes, hi there. I wanted to ask you a little bit on this, but recently Saudi Arabia recognized Kosovo's independence. What are you looking to see more from the Arab countries and the Muslim world on that issue, you know, diplomatic representations or other things?

And will the Vice President -- it's been rumored that he might overstop in the Middle East. Is that -- can you make news here? Will he be going to the Middle East during this visit, as well?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A couple of things. First of all, in terms of the recognitions, I think Kosovo now has, when I last counted, about 58 countries that have recognized it. And I think the Saudi recognition was extremely important and meaningful. It should, I think, hopefully lead other countries to follow suit, and certainly that's something that we encourage.

But regardless of where recognition goes from here, in our judgment Kosovo's status as a sovereign, independent country is irreversible; that's not going to change. And I think the international community increasingly is recognizing that.

And then in terms of anything else, there are no plans for any other -- for anything else at this point on the trip. So, unfortunately, I can't make news for you.

And I think I've got time for one more question, please. Thank you.

Q: Thank you. Yes, just -- can you tell us what Vice President Biden might tell the Serb President Tadic about attitudes toward Serb -- between Serbia and Kosovo? Will he ask the Serbs, for example, to soften their position, or will he have any specific recommendations? And the final question is, is the Vice President going there, such a high-level official, going to the region because he fears the potential for instability down the road?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. In terms of what the Vice President is likely to say to President Tadic and to the other leaders of Serbia that he meets, and particularly in terms of Kosovo, look, I think we're very realistic about this. We need to find a modus vivendi on Kosovo. And in a sense, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. We don't expect Belgrade to recognize Kosovo's independence. But we do hope and expect that Belgrade will not do anything to undermine Kosovo and its efforts to build a strong, stable functioning multiethnic country.

So that's the -- in a sense, that's where I think we have to head. We don't have unreasonable expectations of Belgrade. I think we have reasonable expectations. And in a sense, the real effort is to help convince our friends in Serbia to focus on the future and to focus on their country's future, because that future is potentially extraordinarily bright, given the history of Serbia, given the tremendous talent, given its central and essential role in the region and in Europe. That's the focus that the Vice President hopes to bring to Serbia's leaders and to its people.

And there are specific things, in terms of just making, in a very practical sense, life -- daily life work well for all Kosovars, including the Serbs, the Kosovar Serbs. He feels very strongly -- and he will make this very clear as well when he's in Kosovo -- about the absolute essential requirement that the rights of minorities be protected. And that is a fundamental aspect of our policy. And I think we've seen the government in Kosovo act in a very responsible way, but he's going to reinforce that message.

But with President Tadic, it's really: Let's move forward together. We have an opportunity to reset and restart the relationship between the United States and Serbia. That's what we want. That's where we want to go. And we'll find a way to, as I say, to move forward together, including on Kosovo.

Thank you very much. Thanks. Thanks very much.

END 2:41 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Southeastern Europe," May 15, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86185.
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