Serbia, Kosovo heads of state meet for first time

The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo met for the first time Wednesday in talks mediated by the European Union to defuse tension in one of the continent's last simmering hot-spots.

The historic encounter was "open and constructive" said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton after meeting separately with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Kosovo leader Atifete Jahjaga, and then bringing the pair together for a first-time tete-a-tete.

Both "assured me of their continued support and commitment" to EU-sponsored talks aimed at normalising ties since Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

"I reaffirmed the European perspective for both Serbia and Kosovo and encouraged both sides to continue with the efforts needed for further progress towards the European Union," Ashton said in a statement.

Though no concrete announcements were made, this first top-level meeting marked a significant step in two years of EU efforts to ease tension on its Western Balkans doorstep.

"The handshake will be highly symbolic, very important," said an EU diplomat who asked not to be named.

The meeting comes nearly 14 years after the end of the 1998-1999 conflict between Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas as Brussels works to normalise ties between the pair.

But Nikolic said after the meeting that there was no question of Belgrade "recognising an independent Kosovo" and that he favoured "a wide institutional autonomy" for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.

Serbia, along with five of the 27 European Union nations, still does not recognise Kosovo's independence. Neither do many of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo.

If Jahjaga "continues insisting that Kosovo is an independent state, the dialogue will not be able to move in the direction we want it to go," said Nikolic.

"If we are to repeat to each other our stands, we can do it. After all, North and South Korea did it for years. But that is not the way, we would lose precious time."

The Kosovo leader, a former police commander elected to office in 2011, delivered a softer message, saying that the talks were "the expression of our interest for good neighbourly relations. Our countries benfited, but the whole region as well," she said.

Analysts said the meeting was more important for ultranationalist-turned-conservative Nikolic who, before his election in May 2012, was a fierce opponent of dialogue with Pristina.

"I think Nikolic is not very happy to go to Brussels, but the EU and the United States are determined to see this meeting take place," Belgrade political analyst Dusan Janjic said.

The Serbian and Kosovo presidents both have a largely ceremonial role in domestic politics where executive powers reside in the hands of their prime ministers.

The two premiers, Serbia's Ivica Dacic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci, have already met four times in Brussels since October, with Ashton as mediator. Their next talks are slated for February 22.

The EU-brokered dialogue between the former foes has focused on easing daily headaches for people on both sides by easing border and customs' controls or mutually recognising each others' university diplomas.

But at stake for Serbia in the longterm are hopes of joining the EU, which is also dangling a carrot to Pristina of an accelerated path towards the bloc.

Shortly both sides will post so-called "liaison officers" in their respective capitals to boost communication, a key development.

But the most sensitive and complex issue is Belgrade's hope for some autonomy for the Serbs of northern Kosovo, as well as for 80,000 others in enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.

Serb and Kosovo opposition leaders have strongly condemned the meeting.

In Pristina, the opposition argue that such a meeting should only take place after Belgrade recognises Kosovo's independence, while in the Serbian capital, the meeting is seen in some quarters as another step by the authorities to "give up" Kosovo under international pressure.