The presidents of Croatia and Serbia have agreed to disagree about the Balkan wars of the 1990s but pledged to focus on solving practical problems that could improve their relations and help Belgrade move towards EU membership.
The European Union said last week that Serbia and Montenegro could potentially join the bloc by 2025 if they pursue major reforms and resolve disputes with their neighbours that still linger from the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, becoming the second ex-Yugoslav republic after Slovenia to achieve accession, and Zagreb has vowed to assist Serbia in its membership bid despite continuing tension between two countries that fought a brutal 1991-'95 war.
"The relations between Serbia and Croatia are burdened with the past, which this time we have not talked about," Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said on Monday after hosting her Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic.
“It is our task to talk and seek solutions for issues which divide us,” she added, while admitting that their ties were not friendly.
"We share joint responsibility for the future of southeast Europe, and we have no choice but to continue to talk . . . Croatia supports Serbia in the EU and we are ready to support it in every sense on its path to the EU."
Mr Vucic, who was an ally in the 1990s of warmongering Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic but now portrays himself as a pro-EU conservative, said he was ready to "discuss all our open issues, which are many".
“As for the past, we agree on almost nothing, but at least we understand that the other side has a different view,” he said.
“Serbia and Croatia will have to forge much better relations in the future, whether politicians like it or not.”
At the first official meeting between Serbian and Croatian presidents since 2013, they agreed to give their officials two more years to resolve a border dispute before going to international arbitration to decide the precise location of their frontier on the Danube river.
They also pledged to reinvigorate efforts to find several thousand people who are still missing from the 1990s war, when Belgrade backed ethnic-Serb separatists in Croatia who carved out their own unrecognised mini-state before ultimately being routed by Zagreb’s forces.
Hundreds of Croatian nationalists and members of war veterans’ groups protested in central Zagreb against Mr Vucic’s visit, and demanded that he apologise for Serbia’s role in the war and pay reparations for the destruction it wreaked.
Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic, who met Mr Vucic later on Monday, said they discussed reparations as well as other issues including the border question, minority rights, economic co-operation and Serbia's EU bid; Belgrade rejects calls for it to pay compensation for losses caused by the war.