AFP - Vice President Joe Biden offered Belgrade a fresh start in ties here Wednesday, promising the US "does not expect" Serbia to recognise Kosovo's independence as a "precondition" for EU membership.
"The United States does not, I emphasise, does not expect Serbia to recognise the independence of Kosovo," Biden told a joint Belgrade media conference with Serbia's pro-Western President Boris Tadic.
"It is not a precondition for our relationship or our support for Serbia becoming part of the European Union," he said in a prepared speech.
"We can agree to disagree provided that we have reasonable expectations for one another," he said of a dispute between the two sides over Washington's support for Kosovo's split last year from Serbia.
Biden, the most senior US official to visit Serbia since Jimmy Carter came to the ex-Yugoslav republic as president in 1980, said the Obama administration wanted to repair ties with Belgrade.
The US vice president voiced strong support for Serbia's hopes of joining the 27-member EU bloc, so far held up by the country's failure to capture the last two remaining war crimes fugitives including Bosnian Serb genocide suspect Ratko Mladic.
"We will use our influence, our energy and our resources to promote Serbia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations," he said.
Tadic reiterated his country's staunch opposition to Kosovo independence from Serbia, declared unilaterally on February 17, 2008 by its ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament.
"Serbia does not and will never recognise Kosovo. It is Serbia's legitimate right to defend its territorial integrity through the use of peaceful, diplomatic and legal means," said Tadic.
"Notwithstanding our different positions on the Kosovo question, Serbia wishes for the best possible relations with the United States, as partners.
"Vice President Biden and I have agreed that we now have an opportunity to establish a completely new level of communication between our two countries.
"I am convinced that we can achieve a great deal on the basis of dialogue rooted in mutual respect," said Tadic.
Authorities beefed up security for Biden's visit, closing Serbia's air space and imposing a ban on all public gatherings, including possible anti-US protests.
It was in Belgrade last year that nationalist hooligans torched the US embassy, just days after Kosovo seceded from Serbia and received prompt US recognition.
Most Serbs consider Kosovo their historic heartland, but ethnic Albanians outnumber them by around nine to one in the disputed region of some two million inhabitants.
Hardliners are deeply sceptical of Biden's visit, which the US vice president stresses is part of the Obama administration's bid to develop "healthy" relations with the former pariah state.
Shortly after his arrival in Belgrade, Serb ultra-nationalist lawmakers held up insulting signs in a live television broadcast from parliament against Biden, considered a strong backer of Kosovo's independence.
"Biden, you Nazi scum, go home," said the posters brandished by opposition Radical Party members during the sitting of parliament, where they occupy around one fifth of places in the 250-seat assembly.
NATO bombed Serbia for 11 weeks in 1999 to end a violent crackdown on separatist Kosovo Albanian rebels by forces loyal to late autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic.
The 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict killed several thousand people and saw hundreds of thousands flee the disputed territory. Most of the victims were ethnic Albanians.
Although Belgrade's pro-Western government is keen to improve ties with Washington, it insists it will never recognise the independence of Kosovo, which many Serbs see as their historic heartland.
Biden is on a three-day Balkans tour that took him to Bosnia on Tuesday. He is due to visit Kosovo on Thursday before heading to Lebanon on Friday.