BELGRADE Serbian lawmakers urged autonomy for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo on Sunday, after Prime Minister Ivica Dacic conceded Serbia's sovereignty over its former province was all but lost.
Kosovo declared independence five years ago, in the wake of a 1998-99 war that pitted its ethnic Albanian majority against Belgrade. Serbia says it will never recognise the secession and continues to partly control a northern, Serb-populated pocket of the new country.
After more than 12 hours of debate, parliament adopted a resolution calling for broad autonomy for ethnic Serbs within the legal framework of Kosovo - implicit recognition of the authority of the Kosovo government over its entire territory.
One analyst called the resolution a "milestone", but hard-line Serbian nationalists accused the government of betrayal at the behest of the European Union, which has said membership talks for Serbia depend on improved relations with Kosovo.
"Belgrade never before accepted Pristina's jurisdiction over Serb-held northern Kosovo," said Marko Prelec of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank.
The resolution reiterates that Serbia will never recognise the country of 1.7 million people as independent, but Dacic warned on Saturday that Belgrade could no longer afford "to keep its head in the sand".
"Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo is practically non-existent," he told lawmakers, saying Serbs in Kosovo needed institutions of government that would be recognised by all sides, including Kosovo Albanians.
Backed by the West, Kosovo declared independence in 2008, nine years after NATO bombing of Serbia forced it to withdraw its troops from the province. More than 90 countries have recognised the young country.
The EU, which made Serbia an official candidate for accession last year, is pressing Dacic's government to loosen its hold on north Kosovo and establish functional, neighbourly relations with its former province, even without recognising it as independent.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is chairing talks between Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart, former guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, which resume on January 17 in Brussels.
Kosovo has ruled out any special status for the mainly Serb north, but has been unable to bring the region under its control. The north currently operates in a legal limbo, financed and controlled in part from Belgrade.
The Serbian parliament resolution says Serbs in Kosovo should have autonomy over courts, police, education, energy and a range of other sectors - a level of power that the West fears will amount to ethnic partition of Kosovo.
A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some of the demands "don't look as if they could ever be discussed in any real world".
But, he added, "If you take a step back, there's actually been a lot of progress."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)