By Ivana Sekularac
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Kosovo urged old master Serbia on Thursday to recognize it as independent during the first visit to Belgrade by a foreign minister of the ex-Serbian province that showed how relations have evolved from open hostility to functional co-existence.
Enver Hoxhaj said recognition should come in the form of a peace treaty, speaking on the sidelines of a European Union-sponsored gathering of Western Balkans government ministers that was deliberately short on formality to avoid any diplomatic upsets between Serbia and Kosovo.
Serbia continues to reject sovereignty for its former southern province, which declared independence in 2008 almost a decade after a NATO air war to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces waging a counter-insurgency.
The two are engaged in a long process of EU-chaired dialogue, focusing mainly on practical issues between two neighboring states, one of which does not recognize the other.
"In our view, the dialogue should end with a peace treaty that should include Kosovo's recognition as an independent state and Kosovo's admission to the United Nations," Hoxhaj told reporters.
"I'm in Belgrade for the first time in 25 years," he said, speaking in English. "It shows how difficult the journey was to come to Belgrade, (just) a four-hour drive up the road."
Asked about the significance of his visit, he replied: "I am the symbol of Kosovo sovereignty."
No state symbols were visible in the ministers' meeting room and the talks were multilateral in nature, avoiding any suggestion of Serbian recognition of Kosovo. There was no immediate response from Serbian officials to Hoxhaj's comments.
Many Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox Christian faith, but the vast majority of its 1.7 million people are ethnic Albanians, mostly Muslim but overwhelmingly secular.
Kosovo has been recognized by more than 100 countries since its Western-backed secession six years ago. But United Nations veto-holder Russia, an ally of Serbia, stands in the way of U.N. membership, complicating the process of state-building.
Hoxhaj's visit followed a decision on Wednesday by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to set Kosovo on the path to membership and a place in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. A final decision on full IOC membership is expected in December.
"Kosovo is independent; no one can stop the flow of history," said Hoxhaj. "What happened yesterday is a step towards strengthening Kosovo sovereignty.
"If they (Serbian leaders) were able to receive the Kosovo foreign minister, it shouldn't be an issue if someone is taking part in a basketball match."
Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga has been invited to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission, a braintrust of industrialized nations' power elites, in Belgrade on Oct. 31-Nov. 2, but it is not yet known whether she has accepted.
Vlora Citaku, Kosovo's minister for European integration, was the first minister of an independent Kosovo to visit Serbia. She came in June last year for a low-key, NGO-sponsored forum, but she was not received officially by the Serbian government.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)