The people of Kosovo will forever mark February 17th as a milestone: On that day, Kosovo declared its independence and ended nearly a decade of uncertainty as a UN protectorate. The new country has been formally recognized by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and a number of other countries. I believe this step will help shore up the security and stability of the Balkans.

I congratulate President Bush for his leadership on this issue. I also want to acknowledge our diplomatic corps in Pristina for their untiring efforts to oversee the process of stabilization, negotiation, and the resolution of Kosovo’s final status. And I want to pay tribute to the Kosovar leadership, which demonstrated remarkable patience and maturity in the face of growing public pressure.

Questions have been raised in some sectors of the international community about the legality and legitimacy of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, as well as America’s recognition of the new country. I support the position of the Administration and of our leading European allies that the situation of Kosovo is unique, given the history of ethnic cleansing, as well as the unprecedented level of involvement by the United Nations and NATO.

A year ago I visited Kosovo with Senator John McCain, no less, at a time when he was visiting the Balkans instead of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. I was struck by the immense need for economic development. As long as Kosovo’s final status remained unresolved, businesses were reluctant to invest there and international financial institutions were unable to offer the needed monetary assistance. Now that Kosovo’s political status has been clarified, its leaders must focus on building a strong, healthy, and self-sustaining economy.

The challenge is immense: Kosovo has unacceptably high unemployment, is plagued by corruption, and has experienced limited economic growth. But it also has tremendous assets. Among them: rich mineral resources, a young and resilient population, and a robust drive to succeed. The donors’ conference scheduled for this summer should enable Americans, Europeans and our international partners to devise an effective strategy to help boost Kosovo’s economic development.

In addition, the leaders of Kosovo face the tremendous responsibility of ensuring that that fledgling country remains a safe and hospitable home for all citizens – including the Serb minority population. I welcome the government’s early efforts to implement the wise recommendations made by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who served as the UN envoy to Kosovo during the status negotiations. These recommendations included the passage of laws on the protection of minorities, police, and local government.

I was also pleased that Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci appointed two ethnic Serbs to his cabinet. However, I am troubled by reports that in response to intimidation from officials in Belgrade, these ministers are currently sitting at home rather than continuing to work collaboratively with their Albanian colleagues.

The international community, particularly the NATO Kosovo Force, should continue to send strong and unambiguous signals that the minority communities can count on their protection. The Serbian minority must be allowed to prosper and participate in the new country.

While we recognize the immense pain that the resolution of Kosovo’s final status has caused for many Serbs, it was shameful to see the US embassy in Belgrade in flames while Serbian police officers were idle bystanders watching the fire. When Bosnian-Serb protesters tried to launch a similar attack in Banja Luka, police there were far more responsible in preventing it. Serbian political leaders must follow the rule of law, behave as a mature democracy, and urge restraint by Serbs throughout the region.

The recent re-election of Serbian President Boris Tadic was a welcome sign that the majority of Serbs decidedly do want a Western-oriented future. The voters supported a candidate who clearly stated his European aspirations over those who would have isolated Serbia.

My strong wish is that the Serbian people will reaffirm this decision in the snap parliamentary elections called after the collapse of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s government this past weekend. Voters will have the opportunity to indicate strong support for a Serbia that is firmly rooted in the Euro-Atlantic community rather than governed by radicals who seek closer ties to Russia.

Although Russia has presented itself as a good friend to Serbia and has been richly rewarded for its support with a 51 percent share of Serbia’s state-owned oil company, the Serb people must realize that their future lies to the west, and not to the east.

As it happens, this latest chapter in Balkan history is unfolding on the eve of the latest round of NATO enlargement. In particular, three Adriatic countries – Albania, Croatia and Macedonia – are seeking an invitation to join this military alliance at the Bucharest Summit in April.

There certainly are strong arguments for incorporating all three countries, particularly given the need to stabilize the region as the independence of Kosovo brings to a close the final stage of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. And of course, there is a widely-shared desire to welcome the region into the Euro-Atlantic community.

However, in order for NATO to stay strong and effective, it is important that new members fully meet the membership criteria. Today I invite Assistant Secretary Fried to provide an assessment of the current readiness of these countries and their likely prospects for membership. The committee would also welcome your thoughts on whether the Administration plans to support the extension of Membership Action Plans to the countries Georgia and Ukraine.

Over a century ago, the geopolitical term “Balkanization” emerged to denote what happens when empires or countries fragment into smaller states that are often hostile to one another. It is my hope that during the 21st Century this term will fall into disuse.

For many years, the Balkan region has been the stage for compelling and dramatic action that plays out in unforeseen ways. It remains a site of strategic importance to the United States and Europe. This committee looks forward to discussing the changes and challenges in the Balkans today with our distinguished witness.