Serbia's Vucic makes surprise visit to Putin after election victory

Serbia's Vucic makes surprise visit to Putin after election victory
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade May 27, 2016

Aleksandar Vucic, the head of Serbia’s Progressive Party (SNS) and leader of the caretaker government, made an unexpected visit Moscow where he met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on May 26, the Serbian government said.

Vucic’s visit to Moscow and meeting with Putin had not previously been announced, and according to local media reports he visited Russia primarily to see a doctor, but took the chance to meet Putin while he was there. The meeting took place just two days after Vucic’s May 24 announcement that he would start official talks with representatives of all political parties represented in the new parliament after Serbia’s April 24 general election. The SNS maintained its majority and Vucic has been mandated to form a new government.
At the meeting, Putin said he hoped the new Serbian government would consist of pro-Russians, according to the official website of the Russian president.

"I hope that whatever the new government’s composition, it will give a worthy place to people who give serious attention to developing the relations between the Russian Federation and Serbia,” Putin told Vucic on May 26.

“I hope that we will continue our work to strengthen our bilateral ties and continue our efforts to build up our political cooperation, our economic ties, and our work together on the international stage. We are pleased with your victory and congratulate you on this event.”

However, the parties with the strongest pro-Russian (and anti-EU) stance in the new parliament are the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, and the far right Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) in coalition with the Dveri movement. Neither are among the most likely candidates to join Vucic’s new government.

Meanwhile, according to a May 26 statement from the Serbian government, Vucic said he would do “everything in his power” to improve relations between the two countries. He added that that Serbia “appreciates the personal contribution of Putin to the development of relations between the two countries in all fields.”

“It is an honour and a duty for Serbia to do everything [to ensure that its] relations with the Russian Federation move upwards in all areas, including the economy and politics,” Vucic said.

Vucic also thanked Putin for the political support Russia has offered to Serbia in preserving its territorial integrity, a reference to Russia’s use of its veto to keep Kosovo out of the UN.

Serbia and Russia have had traditionally good relations mainly based on cultural, religious and language similarities, but at the same time Serbia is totally dependent on Russia for its gas imports.

Serbia has been hoping to improve its trade with Russia after the signing of the 2000 Free Trade Agreement between the two countries, which states that goods which have at least 51% value added in Serbia are considered to be of Serbian origin and can be exported to Russia duty free.

The Fiat 500L cars manufactured at the FIAT Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plant in Kragujevac in central Serbia meet these criteria. However, Belgrade has been trying to place the cars on the Russian market for several years, while Russia has so far avoided signing a deal. Moscow claims it needs approval from all Eurasian Union countries.

In 2015, Russia was among Serbia’s top five export destinations, and its third largest source of imports. However, European Union countries accounted for 63.8% of Serbia’s total external trade, which justifies the country’s decision to strive for closer ties with the EU and to have EU membership as its main political goal.

Vucic is aiming to push ahead with Serbia’s EU accession process during his next term as prime minister. The SNS has a majority in the parliament, but Vucic is likely to seek coalition partners for when the government needs a two-thirds majority (167 votes) for certain decisions.