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FILE PHOTO: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference of the leaders of Greece, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria during a mini summit to discuss regional cooperation, in Thessaloniki, Greece, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis(reuters_tickers)
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - President Aleksandar Vucic suggested on Thursday he is prepared to compromise on defining Serbia's borders with Kosovo, to end a conflict with Europe's newest independent state, a key condition for the Balkan country to join the European Union.
Most Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox Christian faith, and Belgrade has so far refused to recognise the independence of its former Southern province.
Under its constitution Serbia considers Kosovo an integral part of itself.
With the help of Russia, its ally and a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, Belgrade is blocking Kosovo's membership in the United Nations and other organisations.
But normalisation of relations with Pristina is a key condition for Serbia to come closer to membership in the European Union, which the government has set as its priority.
On July 31, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci dismissed suggestions that ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, which has a five percent Serb minority, should be divided on ethnic lines.
Most Kosovo Serbs, mainly in its northern part bordering Serbia and where they are dominant, oppose the Pristina authorities.
But during a visit to the northern town of Sid, Vucic suggested that delimitation, a wording understood by many in the region to suggest partition, between Serbia and ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo would be a way out.
"It takes two to tango," he said, referring to EU-led talks with Kosovo on the subject where he leads Serbia's delegation.
"I am striving, and that is my policy for the delimitation with Albanians. To have a territory where one does not know who administers it and how, and what belongs to whom - that is always a source of potential conflicts."
"Whether this will receive popular support it remains to be seen," Vucic said in a TV broadcast, referring to public opinion in Serbia and among Kosovo Serbs. In the past he said that a plebiscite would be required to verify the solution.
Many in Belgrade, politicians and analysts alike, say that a partition, allowing Serbia to maintain control over northern Kosovo, in exchange for the Presevo Valley, an ethnic Albanian-populated area in Serbia's south, could be acceptable to both sides.
Dragan Janjic, editor in-chief of the Belgrade-based Beta news agency, said that because of sharply divided positions, Belgrade and Pristina are still far from a negotiated solution.
"Belgrade speaks about an exchange of territories and Pristina speaks about correction of borders, which brings us to the conclusion that Vucic and Thaci do not have a concrete agreement," Janjic told Reuters. "It is all still very hazy."
Serbia also wants broader autonomy for Serb enclaves in Kosovo, a protected status for Orthodox monasteries and financial compensation for what Serbia claims as its property including industrial and energy facilities.
Vucic, who is leading the Serbian team in EU-led talks with Kosovo and is expected to meet Thaci in Brussels soon, said the solution must be "comprehensive, not simplified," but declined to elaborate and "open negotiating cards."
Kosovo split from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes ousted Serbian forces and halted a crackdown on ethnic Albanians during a brutal two-year counter-insurgency.
But since Serbia does not recognise independent Kosovo it does not recognise the pre-war administrative boundary as an international border.
Serbian nationalists and the influential Serbian Orthodox Church are adamantly opposed to the carve-up of Kosovo as the move would mean abandoning Serbia's constitutional claim on its whole territory.
Kosovo has been recognised by over 100 countries, including 23 out of 28 EU members.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by William Maclean)