By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Serbia and Kosovo agreed on Saturday to cooperate on several practical issues, taking their first step toward easing troubled relations and advancing toward European Union membership.
The EU-mediated talks target a tangle of problems crucial to Kosovo's daily existence, which are a legacy of Serbia's refusal to recognize its secession in 2008, but sidestep the question of Kosovo's independence.
Under Saturday's deal, the two sides will recognize national identification cards and education diplomas issues by each state, making travel easier and allowing for better access to jobs, particularly for Kosovars seeking employment in Serbia.
Belgrade has also agreed to share copies of Kosovo's civil registry, crucial for the smooth operation of the judiciary and combating organized crime which is rife in the region.
"In particular the agreement on free movement is important," EU mediator Robert Cooper said.
"An agreement on free movement in the Balkans in a material way not only helps ordinary people lead more normal lives, but makes it into a more European area."
In return, Kosovo made concessions on the validity of its car registration plates, and any cars with newly issued plates will have to get a substitute at the Serbian border.
Many other issues remain unresolved. But progress is key to Kosovo's struggling economy and will likely determine whether Belgrade or Pristina can move toward fulfilling EU membership aspirations.
In the short-term, Kosovo hopes to win visa-free travel to the EU, while Serbia is aiming for a green light to start EU accession talks.
Belgrade's EU prospects have improved significantly in May when authorities apprehended war-time general Ratko Mladic, wanted by a U.N. tribunal on genocide charges.
But EU officials say they want to see some steps toward reconciliation with Kosovo before launching negotiations.
Serbia lost control of Kosovo, an impoverished landlocked province of 2 million people, in 1999 when NATO waged a bombing campaign to halt killings of ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency war.
Cooper, who has mediated negotiations since March, said the talks did not broach the subject of Kosovo's independence.
"These agreements ... don't involve anyone giving away their positions. They do not prejudice the position of either state with respect to the status of Kosovo," he said.
Many Serbs see Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians, as the cradle of their Orthodox Christian religion, and any compromise on the province's status could be a tough sell in Serbia.
Kosovo is recognized as an independent state by 75 countries, including the United States and most of EU members. Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo.
(Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Alison Williams)