By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 7:12 PM
BELGRADE, SERBIA - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton returned Tuesday to a land bombed by her husband's administration 11 years ago - but in a sign of how times have changed, she brought accolades for Serbia's leadership.
The 1999 NATO air campaign was aimed at forcing the president of what was then Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, to end a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo.
A few buildings in Belgrade still lie in ruins, including part of the Defense Ministry. Clinton's motorcade did not pass them as it sped through the city under extraordinary security, with thousands of black-uniformed police lining the route.
Clinton greeted Serbia's current leader, President Boris Tadic, with a warm handshake and a pat on the back outside the Palace of Serbia, a sprawling slab of white stone that houses government ministries. After their closed-door talks, she said in a statement that the Serb leader had helped set his country on a new course after the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.
"Serbia has made great progress. And we, speaking on behalf of the United States, owe a debt of gratitude to all of those who helped create that progress," Clinton told a roomful of journalists.
The Serb president said that Clinton's visit and an earlier one by Vice President Biden made it possible "to build our relations with the United States on new ground after many years of misunderstanding."
Tadic could not mark a more stark change from Milosevic, the doughy-faced former Communist who fanned Serb nationalism and provided military backing for ethnic Serbs in neighboring republics. Milosevic died in prison while awaiting trial as an accused war criminal.
Tadic, 52, a tall, white-haired former teacher, was a leader of the democracy movement that blossomed after the Kosovo war. He is trying to steer Serbia into the European Union, and has won praise from European officials for the steps he has taken to end his country's isolation.
For example, in April, Tadic issued a state apology for the Srebrenica massacre, the slaughter of an estimated 8,000 men and boys by Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serb militias in 1995. Tadic has also arrested alleged war criminals including Radovan Karadzic, one of the alleged masterminds of the Srebrenica attack. He said Tuesday that he was determined to capture Ratko Mladic, who is also accused of being behind the massacre.
"Serbia is doing its best to close the dark book of the 1990s," Tadic said.
While relations with the United States have improved, Washington and Belgrade are still sharply at odds over Kosovo. Hundreds of Serbian rioters overran the U.S. embassy in Belgrade in 2008 after the U.S. government recognized the independence of Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia whose residents are mostly ethnic Albanians.
Tadic reiterated Tuesday that he would not recognize the independence of Kosovo, which Serbs regard as the cradle of their history. But he said he was eager to start talks with Kosovo on their relationship and day-to-day concerns, which his government agreed to last month.
Clinton praised those talks and hailed Tadic for his commitment to human rights - particularly his government's protection of a gay-rights parade in Belgrade last weekend that drew thousands of far-right protesters, some armed with bricks, bottles and stun grenades.
Clinton traveled to Serbia from the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, which was devastated by an ethnic war in the mid-1990s that claimed about 100,000 lives. That conflict ended with peace accords negotiated by President Bill Clinton's administration.
In recent years, Bosnia has stagnated, with its political system fractured along ethnic and religious lines.
Clinton met with Bosnia's politicians but also reached out to students and civil society groups in a town-hall meeting. She urged them to become more active in overcoming the country's divisions.
"You have to do it, yes, on the leader level, but it also has to happen at what we call the grass-roots level," Clinton told the crowd.
While some students said they were inspired by her words, there was also some skepticism. One student recalled his hopes that Biden's visit last year would translate into political change.
"When I saw Mr. Biden last time, when he was here, we had huge expectations," the student told Clinton. "But when he left, unfortunately, nothing has happened."