BELGRADE, Serbia – Vice President Joe Biden offered Serbia "a strong, new relationship" with the U.S. on Wednesday, along with help in its European Union membership bid, despite deep differences over independence for Kosovo.
Biden said after his talks with Serbia's pro-Western president Boris Tadic that the U.S. wants to see the Balkan country take its place in Europe "as a strong, successful democratic state" playing a constructive role in the still-volatile region.
Biden arrived from Bosnia, the first stop in a three-day tour of the Balkans meant to demonstrate renewed U.S. interest in the region where bloody ethnic wars were fought in the 1990s, which the West accused Serbia of fomenting.
"I came to Serbia on behalf of the Obama-Biden administration with a clear message: the United States wants to, likes to, deepen its relations with Serbia," Biden said.
"Serbia is central to the southeast European future," he said. "The region cannot fully succeed without Serbia playing a constructively leading role."
Tadic said Biden's visit "could set the stage for the formulation of a new American policy toward Serbia and the Balkans."
Unprecedented security measures were in place in the Serbian capital for the visit by the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since former President Jimmy Carter was here in 1980.
Police banned all anti-American protests planned by nationalists during the visit. In February 2008, angry protesters set fire to the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade to protest U.S. support for Kosovo's statehood.
However, a few hundred Radical Party supporters staged a small protest in a Belgrade suburb, and their lawmakers carried anti-Biden leaflets during a parliament session Wednesday.
Many here still view America as anti-Serb. The mistrust stems from the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia that ended the country's rule in Kosovo, the southern province that declared independence last year with Washington's backing.
Nationalist parties have opposed Biden's visit, saying it amounts to a "humiliation" of the country. They accuse Biden of being the chief advocate of the 1999 bombing over Kosovo.
Biden said in Sarajevo Wednesday that he was a strong critic of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of triggering the Balkan conflict.
Biden conceded that Serbia and the U.S. disagree on Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic Albanian-populated region considered by Serbs the medieval cradle of their statehood and religion.
Kosovo's declaration of independence has received strong backing from the United States and major European Union nations and 59 countries have so far recognized Kosovo's statehood.
"The United States does not, and I emphasize, does not expect Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo," Biden said. "It is not a precondition for our relationship, or our support for Serbia becoming a part of the European Union."
He said, "In return, we expect Serbia to cooperate with the European Union and other key international actors" in Kosovo "and look for pragmatic solutions that would improve lives of all the people in Kosovo, both Serbs and Albanians, and avoid making them the victims of political disagreement."
Tadic reiterated that Serbia would never recognize Kosovo's statehood and that it would try to retain it by peaceful, diplomatic means. Serbia has the backing of Russia in the U.N. Security Council.
On Thursday, Biden's last stop on his Balkan tour will be Kosovo, which he said is expected to remain committed to protecting all communities, including the minority Serbs.
In Bosnia on Wednesday, Biden sharply rebuked Bosnia's leaders and warned that continued ethnic divisions threatened to return the country to the chaos of the wars of the 1990s.