PRISTINA, Kosovo — It may seem self-evident, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry felt compelled to say it during a brief stop in the Kosovar capital Wednesday: Parliament, he asserted, is no place for tear gas.
In his first trip to the Balkans as secretary of state, Kerry urged opposition politicians in Kosovo’s parliament to quit setting off tear gas in its deliberative chamber and said the government should do more to tackle Islamist extremism, root out corruption and calm ethnic tensions.
Kerry was referring to several incidents in recent weeks in which opposition party members have lobbed tear gas, pepper spray and water bottles in rowdy protests. They are trying to block sessions until the government renounces an agreement with Serbia giving power to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and another deal with Montenegro about a border dispute.
According to a State Department official who was in the room when Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, Kerry said that during his almost three decades in the U.S. Senate, “A lot of people tried to shut me up, but nobody ever lobbed tear gas at me.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Kerry made a pitch for a more decorous democracy, saying violence is unacceptable.
With Mustafa sitting to his side, Kerry said parliament should be treated as “a shrine to democracy, a place of reverence, of respect, that is not the place for tear gas and it is not the place for intimidation.”
Kosovo is a largely Muslim country, though secular. Around 200 Kosovars, most of them disaffected and unemployed youths, are believed to have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Kerry urged Kosovo to do more to deter radicalism and recruiting “and prove false the promises of glory that extremists use to lure away your young people.”
Kerry advised Mustafa and other Kosovar officials that its agreements with Serbia and Montenegro would not undercut Kosovo’s independence.
“We have invested far too much, ourselves, together, in Kosovo's future to put it at risk,” he said.
During his visit, which lasted less than two hours, Kerry was treated more like a head of state than a secretary of state. His comments were carried live on Kosovo television. Kosovo is wildly pro-American and arguably owes its existence as an independent state to a U.S.-led NATO war in 1999 that prevented ethnic Albanians from being expelled from Serbia and killed. Kerry never left the airport Wednesday, where he was met by a white-gloved honor guard as he descended from his plane and walked down a very long red carpet. Banners declaring “Welcome Secretary John Kerry” hung from walls and bandstands. More than a dozen American flags fluttered on the tarmac.
He flew directly from Pristina to Belgrade, where he met with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, praising the government for holding talks with representatives of their former province, Kosovo.
He offered his respect for the efforts “to put the past in the past and to help define a future that works for everybody more effectively.”
Kerry headed to the Balkans after winding up a two-day NATO meeting in Brussels in which Syria and Russia, the twin threats to Europe from the south and the east, occupied much of the discussion as Kerry pressed his fellow foreign ministers to do more in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.
The foreign ministers of the 28 NATO countries decided Wednesday morning to invite the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro to begin membership talks.
It will not become official until the summer at the earliest, when NATO meets in Warsaw, but it could ratchet up already-strained tensions with Russia. Moscow immediately threatened to retaliate for NATO’s move, saying it considers the invitation a strategic threat even though Montenegro, home to barely 600,000 people, lies hundreds of miles from Russia.
In a news conference before he departed from Brussels, Kerry said the open arms extended to Montenegro were not intended to threaten Russia.
“NATO is not a threat to anyone,” he said. “It is a defensive alliance. It is simply meant to provide security. It is not focused on Russia or anyone else.”
While in Belgrade for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kerry plans to meet Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S.-Russia relationship is increasingly schizophrenic. Washington has imposed sanctions over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States joined its NATO allies in supporting Turkey in the wake of its shoot-down of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last month, and the NATO decision to increase defensive shipments to Turkey could further exacerbate tensions.
At the same time, the United States is seeking Russia’s support for a multinational effort launched in Vienna to get the Syrian government and opposition groups to the negotiating table.
Russia backs the Assad government and has been reluctant to join efforts to ease him from power, which the United States and most of its Arab and European partners consider a prerequisite for peace.