Russian President Vladimir Putin received an unequivocally warm welcome in Serbia on October 17. The visit served to cement ties between Russia and Serbia in the diplomatic and military spheres, despite the latter’s prioritising of EU membership.
The Serbian military put on a lavish display for Putin on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army alongside Serbian partisans. More than 3,000 Serbian soldiers took part in the military parade, with Belgrade even moving forward the date of the event (the Belgrade offensive started on September 14) to fit in with Putin’s schedule. During his six-hour stopover in Belgrade, Putin was awarded Serbia's highest honour, the Order of The Republic of Serbia, by his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a speech at the parade that the two countries shared an “unbreakeable bond”. “Serbia and Russia are linked by their roots, language, customs, creed, history, culture,” Nikolic said.
While this ignores a sizeable chunk of recent history - the Soviet-Yugoslavia split came just three years after the liberation of Belgrade - more recently Russia has been a staunch supporter of Serbia. In 1999, Rusia opposed the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and Moscow has continued to support Belgrade's opposition to Kosovo’s independence.
Putin confirmed on October 17 that this will continue. "We supported Serbia in the past and we intend to continue supporting it in the future. In Russia friendship is not an object of trade-offs," Putin said.
While the current Serbian government under Prime Minister Alexander Vucic is staunchly pro-European, Putin’s popularity among ordinary Serbians was apparent, as thousands of people lined the parade route to cheer him.
The visit also yielded seven agreements spanning the military and economic spheres. An agreement on technical cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries paves the way for future cooperation and modernisation of Serbian military equipment, Serbian Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic said the following day.
Talks between Putin and Nikolic also covered investments into the agriculture, energy, machine building and railways sectors. Trade and investment is due to be ramped up in the agriculture sector. Since Serbia is exempt from the one-year Russian embargo on western agricultural imports, Moscow is encouraging Serbian producers to export more to the Russian markets, despite pressure from the EU on Belgrade not to take advantage of the ban.
Putin said that if the agreements in the sector signed on October 17 come to fruition, “exports of Serbian products to the Russian market will increase from $130m to $500m in a short time,” according to the Serbian government.
He added that the sanctions were a “real chance” for producers in countries that wanted to develop cooperation with Russia.
To date, Russia has invested a total of $3bn into Serbia, but Putin told a joint press conference with Vucic that within three years this total could double, or reach as high as $10bn.
Russia has already extended a $800m loan to Serbia for modernisation of its railways. During Putin’s visit, Russian Railways’ subsidiary RZD International signed a contract to rebuild three sections of the Trans-European railway Corridor 10, and a second agreement to supply 27 diesel locomotives to Serbia.
Both sides also reiterated their commitment to the South Stream gas pipeline, acknowledging, however, that the project would only be viable if the EU countries along its route agree to go ahead. Putin told journalists he was “ deeply convinced” that the project was beneficial for European consumers, but added, "South Stream cannot be realised unilaterally if our partners are still in two minds about it. This is like love, it can be happy only if there are two participants of this wonderful process, who both want to develop relations.”
Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Serbia has become Russia’s closest partner within Europe, and one of only a small handful of European countries not to sign up to EU sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea.
At the same time, however, Vucic’s government has made EU accession its priority. Serbia received a positive assessment in the European Commission’s latest enlargement reports released on October 8, although its divergence from EU policy over South Stream was noted. The last year has marked a turning point for Serbia on its road towards EU membership, with the accession negotiations process formally launched in January 2014.
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