BELGRADE Serbia's prime minister appeared to row back on Wednesday from talk of a deal allowing Kosovo to join the United Nations, saying it was "illusory" to even discuss the issue without a comprehensive settlement on its former province.
Remarks by Ivica Dacic on Tuesday, in which he held out the prospect of U.N. membership for Kosovo, raised eyebrows in Serbia and angered nationalists for whom the majority Albanian state is the cradle of the Serbian nation and its Orthodox faith.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after NATO bombs wrested control of the territory from Serbia, but Belgrade has retained de facto control of a Serb-populated pocket of the north.
The EU is now mediating talks between the two aimed at normalising relations and loosening Serbia's grip on the north. The bloc wants progress before it moves ahead with Serbia's bid to join.
"If there is no discussion of status, about a final or comprehensive solution, then it would be illusory to talk about membership of the U.N., or other bodies, because Serbia could never agree with that and there's no dilemma about that on our side," Dacic told a news conference on Wednesday.
"We would not accept partial solutions as this U.N. membership issue is a fundamental issue, and Serbia would surely not accept that," he said.
Western powers say Kosovo's status was settled in February 2008, when it declared independence and was recognised by the United States and 22 of the European Union's 27 member states.
More than 90 countries now recognise the country of 1.7 million people as sovereign, but Serbian ally Russia, a veto-holder in the Security Council, crucially stands in the way of a seat at the United Nations.
The EU talks are aimed at rolling back the country's de facto ethnic partition and establishing functional, neighbourly relations between Belgrade and Pristina, even if Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as sovereign.
Talks resume on Thursday in Brussels, when EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will host a working dinner between Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart, ex-guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci.
In some of the boldest comments by a Serbian leader on Kosovo since the 1998-99 war, Dacic told lawmakers on Saturday that Serbian sovereignty over the former province was "practically non-existent" and Belgrade could no longer afford "to keep its head in the sand".
Parliament adopted a resolution implicitly offering to recognise the authority of Thaci's government over the entire territory of Kosovo, in exchange for broad autonomy for the Serb north. But it reiterated that Serbia could never recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state.
Kosovo has rejected any special status for the north, but has struggled to bring the region under its control. Tensions have thwarted plans by NATO to reduce its Kosovo peacekeeping force, currently at around 6,000 soldiers.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Roche)