BELGRADE Serbia held out the chance of a seat at the United Nations for Kosovo on Tuesday, in what would mark a major concession to its former province as Belgrade tries to clear a path to joining the European Union.
Majority Albanian Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after a NATO air war wrested control of the territory from Serbia, which rejected the secession and retains control over a Serb-populated pocket of northern Kosovo.
The EU is mediating talks aimed at normalising ties and loosening Serbia's grip on the north.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic called on Tuesday for a "comprehensive" settlement after Kosovo's government said its ultimate aim was to secure recognition of statehood by the United Nations.
"We can agree on everything," Dacic told reporters in comments carried by the state news agency, Tanjug. "We are seeking a comprehensive settlement, but for that to happen something has to be given."
"They (Kosovo) are pressuring us through the European Union, and we're not letting them into the United Nations. Are we supposed to go on sparring like that for years?" he said.
Dacic has a reputation for speaking off the cuff, particularly on Kosovo, and analysts say his comments do not always reflect the official policy of the coalition government.
Yet his remarks followed the adoption of a resolution by Serbian lawmakers on Sunday that implicitly offered to recognise the authority of the Kosovo government over the north in exchange for broad autonomy for tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs living there.
The text reiterated that Serbia would never recognise Kosovo as sovereign. But Serbia could acquiescence to a U.N. seat for Kosovo without formally recognising Kosovar statehood.
Belgrade's ally and U.N. Security Council veto-holder Russia is blocking Kosovo's statehood bid.
PULL OF EU
Kosovo has ruled out any special status for the north and Western diplomats say the ethnic Serb autonomy advocated by Serbia would amount to cementing a partition that Western powers have long opposed.
The opposition Democratic Party of Serbia, a small nationalist party, called on Dacic to resign, accusing him of leading an anti-Serbian "policy of capitulation".
But his remarks appeared, on the whole, to cause few ripples, reflecting the waning force of hardline nationalists for whom Kosovo represents the cradle of the Serbian nation and Orthodox faith.
Impoverished and indebted, Serbia is in the throes of its second recession since 2009. Dacic, who railed against the West as spokesman for late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, now says EU accession represents Serbia's best hope of prosperity.
The political mainstream has coalesced around the same goal, encouraged by the prospect of neighbouring Croatia, Serbia's wartime foe, joining the EU in July this year.
Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 after 11 weeks of NATO air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency. The territory became a ward of the United Nations and declared independence in 2008.
More than 90 countries have recognised the landlocked country of 1.7 million people, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 member states.
Dacic told parliament on Saturday that Serbian sovereignty over the region was "practically non-existent" and Belgrade could no longer afford to "keep its head in the sand."
He resumes negotiations on Thursday in Brussels with his Kosovo counterpart, former guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci. Progress will decide when the EU opens accession talks with Serbia, possibly in mid-2013.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)