BELGRADE – Serbia's president told visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday he hoped to open a new page in relations with Washington, ten years after NATO bombed the Balkan country over its conduct in Kosovo.
Biden, hated by many Serbs for backing independence for majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo and lobbying for Bosnian Muslims in their 1992-5 fight against Bosnian Serbs, is on the highest-level U.S. visit to Belgrade in a quarter century.
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, Serbian President Boris Tadic said, adding that he had invited President Barack Obama to visit.
Serbia is still seeking to emerge from the shadow of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Seen in the West largely as aggressors in those conflicts, many Serbs consider themselves victims and remain bitter about NATO's 1999 bombing campaign to drive Serb forces from Kosovo, which they consider to be Serbia's historic heartland.
We pay our respects to the victims on all sides, and we expect respect to be paid to our victims as well, Tadic said.
Security concerns meant many soldiers and police lined the route during Biden's travels, keeping the public away. Officials banned anti-American protests in downtown Belgrade scheduled by nationalist organizations and political parties.
In the Serbian parliament, members of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party displayed posters reading Biden, you Nazi scum, go home and Kosovo is Serbia.
Srecko Nikolic, 68, a retired blue collar worker in Belgrade, also opposed the visit.
Americans never brought us any good, he said. They were killing us during allied bombings in 1944, in 1995 in Bosnia and 1999 in Serbia. The sooner he leaves, the better.
The Serbian government hopes to join the European Union, and some analysts and diplomats say the country's failure to examine its role in the wars is slowing the embrace of Western values and integration.
Biden noted he faced some skepticism because of his wartime criticism but said Washington sought to cooperate.
The region cannot fully succeed without Serbia, we both acknowledged we need to find a way forward on issues that divide us, he said after meeting Tadic on Wednesday.
Strong U.S. support for Kosovo, which declared independence last year, remains an irritant to many Serbs, while Belgrade's refusal to recognize it is a source of concern in the West.
We can agree that we disagree (over Kosovo) providing that we have reasonable expectations from one another, Biden said, urging a pragmatic approach from Belgrade to Kosovo's leaders.
We do not expect Serbia any time soon to recognize the independence of Kosovo. That is not the precondition for our relationship or our support for Serbia to become part of the European Union.
Tadic said Kosovo's declaration of independence violated international law but he sought a partnership with Washington.
Notwithstanding our different positions on the Kosovo question, Serbia wishes for the best possible relations with the United States, as partners.
Biden later met Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic in his central Belgrade office after driving past buildings still in ruins from the 1999 NATO bombing.