Serbia, Kosovo leaders to hold symbolic first meeting

Serb and Kosovo leaders meet for the first time in Brussels on Wednesday in a highly symbolic encounter that marks an important step in EU-sponsored efforts to improve relations between the former foes.

The meeting, chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, comes nearly 14 years after the end of the 1998-1999 conflict between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatist guerrillas and Belgrade security forces.

Following a three-month-long NATO bombing campaign launched to halt Serbia's crackdown on Kosovo's independence-seeking rebels, Belgrade troops were expelled from the Serbian province, a move that paved the way for Pristina to unilaterally declare independence in 2008.

Brussels sees the talks between Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and his Kosovo counterpart Atifete Jahjaga as a way to normalise relations, despite Belgrade's refusal to recognise the independence of the breakaway territory.

"We are dedicated to this process and firmly determined not to pass all the animosities of the past to younger generations," Jahjaga has said.

Analysts say the meeting is 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," said Belgrade political analyst Dusan Janjic.

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.

Brussels has pushed the two sides to establish proper relations in order to ease daily life of their people, hinting to Belgrade that it might grant it a date to start EU membership talks. It is also holding out the carrot to Pristina of an accelerated path towards the bloc.

So far, Belgrade and Pristina have agreed on border controls, customs and other issues aimed at easing day-to-day life for Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population of 1.8 million.

The dialogue led to the opening under joint management of four crossing points on the flashpoint border of northern Kosovo, home to a large Serbian minority which refuses to recognise Pristina's authority.

The two sides have also agreed on having so-called "liaison officers" in their respective capitals to boost communication.

But the most sensitive and complex issue to be resolved is Belgrade's aim to obtain broad autonomy for some 40,000 Serbs living in the tense north, as well as for 80,000 others in enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.

Many Kosovo Serbs are reluctant to accept the outcome of the dialogue fearing it would lead to Serbia abandoning them.

Serb and Kosovo opposition leaders have strongly condemned the meeting.

In Pristina, they say it should be held only 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.