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Helsinki Commission Hearing Focuses on U.S. Support for Western Balkan Countries

WASHINGTON — At a hearing today of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Co-Chairmen Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) called for clarity in a coordinated United States and European Union policy toward the countries of the Western Balkans.  Photos from the hearing are available here.

The countries covered included Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Co-Chairman Hastings argued that renewed conflict in the region must be made inconceivable; the countries concerned must see their future in Europe and organized crimes and official corruption must be tackled.  Hastings also told the witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman, that active U.S. engagement should not merely legitimize the European Union’s approach to the Balkans but also “make the EU approach more substantive and more constructive in the process.”  Chairman Cardin called for clarity in U.S. and EU policies, arguing that “these countries need a concrete sense of direction” and that “ambiguities are obviously used by politicians in the Western Balkans to their own advantage.” 

Countryman concurred with the Co-Chairmen’s remarks.  “As Secretary Clinton made clear during her visit in October,” he noted, “the United States is unfaltering in its commitment to the Western Balkans.  We were there during the most difficult periods of time, and we remain committed today to helping each of these seven countries realize their own aspirations for stability, prosperity, and membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions.”

Also present at the hearing were Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a member of the Helsinki Commission, and Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), Representative Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and Representative Russ Carnahan (D-MO), all of whom have been actively involved in policy responses to Balkan developments over the years.

Presenting the State Departments assessment of region, Tom Countryman noted “several encouraging signs,” including “a structure of political development that will enable movement along a self-sustaining path toward membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions” and a “heartening trend in the development of a political center that is no longer dominated by the nationalistic issues of the 1990s.”  He noted that challenges still exist, most notably related to dedication to the rule-of-law.

In his country-by-country assessment, Countryman expressed most immediate concern about the possibility of election-related violence this weekend in Kosovo, where Serbian officials have made statements that seemed to threaten violence against polling stations in the north of Kosovo and have not been sufficiently and clearly repudiated by the government in Belgrade.  “Sadly,” he concluded, “it appears that it is only Serbs who are using violence to prevent other Serbs from voting” despite efforts by the international community and the Kosovo Government to facilitate the free participation of all Kosovo Serbs in the elections.  Rep. Hastings indicated his strong support for action to thwart violence.

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