Belgrade has not yet received a Russian donation of six used Mig 29 aircraft, announced in the run-up to Serbia’s April presidential election. Meanwhile, 19 HMMWV military vehicles or “humvees” were delivered by the US on June 1.
The US donation is still considerably smaller than that announced by Russia; according to the Serbian ministry of defence’s June 1 statement, the vehicles are worth a bit over $3.8mn while the total value of the 40 vehicles US has donated to Serbia’s army so far totals over $7.5mn. Yet it’s a sign of growing cooperation between the Serbian and US militaries, a trend that has been downplayed in Belgrade as the government is fearful of alienating the pro-Russian segment of the population.
The MIG donation was controversial since while Serbia will receive the aircraft for free, it will need to pay between €180mn and €230mn to overhaul the planes. Originally announced in December, Serbia’s then prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, highlighted the gift during his pre-election visit to Moscow, in a move likely intended to appeal to the substantial parts of the electorate that still see Russia as Serbia’s main external ally.
However, two months on from the election, the MIGs have so far failed to materialise. The latest rumour is that they are expected to arrive at the Batajnica military airport on June 28 — the anniversary of the 1389 battle of Kosovo — daily tabloid Alo reported on June 4.
June 28 is a highly emotive date on the Serbian calendar, marking the loss of Kosovo — which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 — to the Ottoman empire. Serbia still claims ownership of Kosovo, and is backed by Russia, which has used its veto to prevent Kosovo from joining the UN.
There is, however, speculation that Alo’s report originated from Russian officials keen to spin the delayed delivery of the aircraft positively following the arrival of the US humvees.
While Serbia was waiting for Russia’s gift, it received the 19 vehicles, which don’t need expensive repairs or modernisation, from the US.
During the ceremony to mark the humvees’ arrival in the town of Pancevo on June 1, Vucic (who is now Serbia’s president) and Minister of Defence Zoran Djordjevic were questioned about when the arrival of the Russian aircraft was expected.
Vucic said before the election that they would arrive in a matter of weeks. However, on June 1, he indicated a longer wait could be expected.
“I hope and I expect it would be done in next two months, as I have been recently informed,” Vucic said, N1 reported.
Meanwhile, Djordjevic only said the planes would arrive “just on time”.
Alongside the donation of vehicles, the US also helps Serbia in the development of South Base, a training centre for peacekeeping missions located in the southern Serbia. Serbian military officers also often go to US military schools and their scholarships are part of bilateral deals.
In addition, most of the international military exercises in which Serbia’s armed forces participate are sponsored by the US or Nato, and they significantly contribute to improvement of Serbia’s army.
On the other hand, Serbia and Russia hold joint military drills only once or twice a year.
Moscow also opened the Russian-Serbian centre for emergencies near Nis, in southern Serbia. This is a military facility since one of the Serbian army’s responsibilities is helping citizens in natural disasters and other emergencies. The centre is therefore seen as Russia’s military base in Serbia even though it isn’t officially billed as such.
The purpose of the base was initially related to protection of the South Stream pipeline which was expected to run through Serbia. The project was killed few years ago, but there is still a facility although it is reportedly empty. However, Russians do not seem willing to withdraw — in fact they have asked for special diplomatic status for their people working at the base, and there is speculation Moscow has delayed delivery of the MIGs until this is resolved.
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