Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sarajevo-Belgrade Oct 30


We woke up in Sarajevo yesterday and, thankfully, had a bit of time in the morning before Clinton began her official schedule. There was still snow on the ground, and you could look out between the buildings and see the snow-covered mountains ringing the city -- where the snipers used to be. Really amazing to think of what that place and those people have been through. There is some new building in town, so a few big glass boxes, but also a lot of old housing, much of pock-marked with bullet holes. No wonder it is still hard, less than 20 years after the war, for them to be pulling it together.

Clinton met up with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and they held a series of meetings with various UN officials, before sitting down with the three members of Bosnia's tripartite revolving presidency. Another legacy of the war, and one which must make executive action very hard to agree on. The message here, as it was the last time we came with Clinton two years ago, was that it was time for Bosnia's continual political crisis is putting it at risk of being left behind by its Balkan neighbors as they charge ahead toward EU and NATO membership. There just seems to be too much left undone, too many remaining arguments for the Bosnian leadership to really accomplish the economic and structural reforms that will be necessary, and Clinton and Ashton were clear that this is a danger. We spent the morning at the presidential office, and were finally herded in with hundreds of local journalists (how many TV stations can a country the size of Bosnia have?) for the final press conference, where they made their point. Given how central the whole Balkan story and Sarajevo was to the Clinton presidency, I think that Hillary feels a very personal connection with Bosnia and is worried and frustrated that the new country has not found its feet.

Then it was back to the office and on to Belgrade for three hours. Last time we spent the night, but this time it was just a brief stop on the ground -- or more specifically, a brief stop at the Palace of Serbia, an untouched 1960s Yugoslav era gem. The pictures I could take with the blackberry don't do it justice: the furniture, the sculpture, the brutalist carpets -- all straight out of Mad Men and completely unmolested. In one glass case there was an atomic clock, vintage early 1980s, which showed the ever ticking world populuation and the also increasing but now completely fictional population of Yugoslavia.

More waiting, this time in a sort of Security Council set up with a great circular desk where they must have held meetings. After the photo spray at the entry, all the local and foreign journalists piled back to this room to unload their gear. Then lots of local journalists appeared to disappear...? Where to? I had to find a bathroom so asked somebody and was pointed through another series of doors toward the back. The minute I walked through the men's room entrance it was clear: Here were all the local journalists, packed shoulder to shoulder, and smoking like lab rats. It was a hilarious scene: men, women, just chatting as if in a crowded nightclub under a huge and disgusting cloud of cigarette smoke. More and more piled in ... Serbia clearly either hasn't received or just doesn't care about the health warnings.

After waiting for a while back in the circular room, we were taken to the press conference -- just statements this time, no questions. The message was largely the same: Serbia has to work out its kinks with Kosovo if either country is going to make it into the EU. Then back to the vans, a brief stop at a hotel for Clinton to say hello to embassy workers, and back to the airport for the one hour flight to Pristina.

A final view of the palace interior -- doesn't do it justice, but it was room after room of this stuff. A real collection. I hope they don't "modernize" it at some point!