BELGRADE Serbia held out the chance of a seat at the United Nations for Kosovo on Tuesday, contradicting a historic claim over its former province as it tries to remove the biggest obstacle to joining the European Union.
Serbia has vowed never to recognize Kosovo's 2008 secession but Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, under pressure to normalise ties with Kosovo's Albanian-dominated government in talks mediated by the EU, said Serbia now wanted a "comprehensive" settlement.
The West wants Serbia to loosen its grip on a small, Serb-populated pocket of northern Kosovo and establish functional, neighborly relations with its former province without formally recognizing it as independent.
Kosovo's government said this week its ultimate aim in the talks was to secure recognition of statehood by the United Nations.
"We can agree on everything," Dacic said in remarks carried by 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.
In a speech to parliament on Saturday, Dacic said Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo was "practically non-existent" and Belgrade could no longer afford to "keep its head in the sand".
They represent some of the boldest statements on Kosovo by a Serbian leader since NATO went to war in 1999 to halt a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency under late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
NATO air strikes forced the withdrawal of Serbia's army and police and Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 1.7 million people are ethnic Albanians, became a ward of the U.N.
More than 90 countries have recognized Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008, including the United States and 22 of the EU's 27 member states.
But Serbian backer Russia, a veto holder in the U.N. Security Council, stands in the way of Kosovo joining the U.N. and a raft of international bodies for which U.N. membership is a prerequisite.
The EU, which Serbian neighbor and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia will join in July, made Serbia an official candidate for membership last year, but accession talks hinge on progress in the negotiations with Kosovo.
Serbia retained de facto control over the Serb-populated area of Kosovo's north, which has resisted the authority of Kosovo's government.
On Sunday, the Serbian parliament adopted a resolution implicitly offering to recognize the authority of the Kosovo government over the entire territory, in exchange for broad autonomy for tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs living there.
Kosovo has ruled out any special status for the north.
Talks between Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart, former guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, resume on Thursday in Brussels, chaired by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)