Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kosovo-Zagreb-Tirana Oct 31-Nov 1

I am writing this a little late -- two days after our return to the U.S., so the details are already a little foggy.

From Belgrade we went back to Kosovo. No stops at the Bill Clinton statute this time: it was a quick overnight, with some morning meetings and then on to Croatia.

Pristina is a gritty little place, one of those cities where the air is grey and you are not sure if it is mist or pollution. But the Kosovars are obviously immensely proud of their achievement, and Clinton is still a sort of national heroine. In the morning, she met with the Kosovo PM -- a giant man, former freedom fighter -- who has taken the risk of agreeing to EU-mediated dialogue with his Serbian counterpart. She and Ashton both praised him for his courage (obviously there is a political risk for both sides to this dialogue) and promised that the U.S. and the EU would stand with the young country as it seeks to prise open the door to EU membership.

From there we went to a Serbian church, where Clinton was to meet with representatives of the Kosovo Serb community, much of which was displaced during the independence war and is only now starting to trickle back. The church itself had been burned almost to the ground in ethnic rioting in 2004, and her visit was meant as a clear signal both to Kosovo and to the Serbs that the United States would be watching closely to see how the Serbs are treated in the new political dispensation. The meeting was behind closed doors so we didn't get much color out of it, but it was interesting to look at the church where security was heavy -- there were even guards standing in the small graveyard out back.

Then on to Croatia. Compared to the other countries we visited, Croatia definitely seemed to be a part of the "West". Zagreb is a pretty city, with an old downtown and lots of street life. They are already in NATO and getting into the EU next year, so Clinton's visit was meant to highlight the country as a Balkan Success Story and a model for the other countries in the region.

We waited while she had meetings with the foreign minister and wandered around one of the old town's main squares. There was a tiny three-man protest at the church opposite -- "Hillary Go Home" and "Down with U.S. Oligarchy". The protesters, a trio of elderly gents smoking cigarettes -- were being watched by about five or six heavily armed Croatian policemen, and the whole thing had a slightly Kafka-esque absurdity to it. When Clinton finally emerged and the motorcade left, the protesters lumbered to their feet and waved their signs with whatever energy they could muster. Seems as though that particular revolution has already passed them by.

From there we went to a presidential guesthouse up in the hills -- a beautiful modern building set in the forest. Here Clinton did her only real press conference of the trip, where she laid out a new U.S. policy on the Syrian opposition, ditching the ineffective Syrian National Council and calling for more inclusion of groups doing the actual fighting on the ground. It was a significant shift, and a little difficult to handle sitting on folding chairs in Zagreb, but we managed to get the initial news out and when we returned to the hotel I was able to write the story through with more context. It felt satisfying to (finally) have some real news to deal with!

That night we set out for a good dinner, which involved a walk through the center of town and then a trek down some very dark roads. It was a lot longer than we had anticipated, and at times it felt as though we were walking deep into the countryside. But we finally found the restaurant which was as advertised: extremely good, and not too expensive. Mission success.

The next morning it was up early and on to Albania for a few hours. I can't really say I saw much of Tirana, as we shot through pretty fast. Clinton did give a speech at the Albanian parliament, where she called on them to get serious about fighting corruption which apparently is a huge problem. Not much news there, though, at least for international consumption. Then back on the plane, short stop in Shannon, and home.