Serbia on Sunday adopted a set of guidelines for reconciliation talks with the leaders of Kosovo, in a strong first signal it is loosening its claim to its former province in hopes of getting closer to European Union membership.
In a resolution adopted by an overwhelming majority in Parliament, Serbia maintained it will never recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence. But in a big shift in policy, the document called for wide autonomy for minority Serbs within Kosovo's borders, indirectly recognizing Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
While outlining a government plan for the talks with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said "Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo practically does not exist" since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign chased Serbian troops out of the region.
Kosovo, which is recognized by some 90 countries including the United States and most EU states, is considered by Serbian nationalist the medieval cradle of the Serbian state and the Orthodox religion — something like Jerusalem for the Jews — and they have pledged never to give it up.
But, Dacic warned against "myths and fairytales" over Kosovo and said "we have to create a strong basis to save something."
"If Serbia keeps its head in the sand, it will have nothing to negotiate about," Dacic, who was former President Slobodan Milosevic's spokesman during the Kosovo war, said. "People need results and responsibility, not a policy of honorable failures and lost battles."
The more pragmatic approach to the ongoing talks indicates Serbian desire to get closer to EU membership. The EU said a progress in the talks is crucial for Belgrade to get a starting date for accession negotiations.
Hard-line nationalist lawmakers denounced the resolution, saying it represents "treason" and "a selloff" to the EU.
Serbia's nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic, who initiated the text of the original, more expansive resolution, praised the adoption of the document.
"This was a typical Serbian day in the parliament," Nikolic said, referring to the deep divisions in Serbia over Kosovo and other issues. "We did not reach a complete consensus, but it is clear that there is will to help find a solution to this problem."