BELGRADE (Reuters) - Billed as a new chapter in Balkan history, the first visit by an Albanian leader to Serbia in 68 years descended on Monday into a public row between prime ministers over the independence of the majority-Albanian former Serbian province of Kosovo.
Serbia sees Kosovo as the cradle of its nation and faith, but the vast majority of its 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians who seceded in 2008 almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt a wave of ethnic cleansing.
"We have two entirely different positions on Kosovo, but the reality is one and unchangeable," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said at a televised press conference with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic.
"Independent Kosovo is an undeniable regional and European reality, and it must be respected," he said.
Angered, Vucic said he had not expected such "provocation".
"According to the constitution Kosovo is Serbia and I am obliged to say that no one can humiliate Serbia."
To which Rama responded: "I'm sorry, but that is the reality that many recognize. The sooner you recognize (that), the sooner we can move ahead."
The region has largely stabilized since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s - of which the 1998-99 Kosovo war was the final chapter - but widespread poverty, joblessness and political disagreements continue to fuel tensions.
Rama, in an interview with Reuters, warned that much was still at stake, and said the EU should move more quickly to bring in the rest of the Western Balkans, amid deep misgivings within the 28-nation bloc over the wisdom of further expansion.
Both nations want to join the European Union.
"Enlargement fatigue, okay, but there is also patience fatigue that is threatening the Balkans; if the patience ends, it's better we don't predict what can happen," he said.
"Whoever thinks that the Balkans are out of Europe so it's not a European problem is deadly wrong," he said.
Rama's visit had already been postponed from Oct. 22 when a diplomatic row erupted over an abandoned soccer match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade.
The game was halted when a drone carrying a flag of 'Greater Albania' flew over the pitch, triggering a brawl between players and a pitch invasion by Serbian fans.
Rama was due to visit ethnic Albanians living in Serbia's southern Presevo Valley, adjacent to Kosovo, on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Benet Koleka in Tirana; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Louise Ireland