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Russian President Deepens Balkan Ties On Belgrade Visit

Serbian President Boris Tadic (right) with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Belgrade

Serbian President Boris Tadic (right) with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Belgrade

(RFE/RL) -- With a major loan and an offer of a "strategic partnership" in energy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has sought to deepen Moscow's influence in Serbia during a trip to Belgrade -- the first visit by a Russian president to Moscow’s closest ally in the Balkans.

During his one-day visit, Medvedev approved a 1 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) loan to help Belgrade close its budget deficit and fund infrastructure projects, although the terms of the credit have still not been worked out.

Russia and Serbia also signed a series of energy and economic agreements including a plan to have the South Stream pipeline pass through Serbia and for Russia to build an underground natural-gas storage facility in the country.

They also signed a deal to modernize Serbia's oil monopoly, NIS, in which Russia's Gazprom owns a majority stake.

At a joint press conference with Serbian President Boris Tadic, Medvedev said the agreements will have a "significant impact on the economic development" of Serbia and Russia.

"Those large [joint] projects we're working on reflect our historical interconnection as well as the atmosphere of friendship and trust that has traditionally linked our peoples," Medvedev said.

Tadic, for his part, thanked the Kremlin leader for backing Serbia's rejection of Kosovo's independence.

"I would like to thank President Dmitry Medvedev for his strong support in defending Serbia's territorial integrity and sovereignty over Kosovo. Serbia will not recognize Kosovo under any circumstances," Tadic said.

Serbia has challenged the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence at the International Court of Justice, which will hear the case in December.

Historic Visit

Medvedev's visit, the first ever by a Russian president to Serbia, comes on the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from Nazi occupation by Soviet forces and Yugoslav partisans at the end of World War II.

Serbia appears to be moving deeper into Russia's sphere of influence, particularly on energy issues, even as it continues to seek membership in the European Union.

Vienna-based analyst Vladimir Gligorov tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Belgrade feels deep gratitude for Moscow's support over Kosovo.

"Serbia is constantly changing its priorities, from Kosovo on one hand to its bid for membership in the European Union on the other," Gligorov says. "That creates a policy in which they are also constantly changing alliances, which is very dangerous politics."

Medvedev's trip comes as neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina is experiencing its worst political crisis since the 1992-95 war, as ethnic Serbs -- with apparent support from Belgrade -- are seeking to prevent Western efforts to establish a stronger central government in the ethnically fractious country.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia's Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, joined Tadic and Medvedev in the evening for a celebration commemorating the liberation of Belgrade.

Earlier in the day, Medvedev and Tadic laid wreaths at a ceremony for Red Army soldiers killed during the freeing of Belgrade from the Nazis on October 20, 1944.

The Russian president also addressed the Serbian parliament, where he praised "strategic" cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow in the energy sphere.

"We sincerely want Serbia to become, as a result of the implementation of these [energy] agreements, an important regional energy player that participates in the distribution and transportation of Russian natural gas," Medvedev said.

Russia's clout in Serbia has been steadily growing in recent years. Last year, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom bought a 51 percent stake in Serbia's NIS in a deal that gives Moscow a monopoly over the sale of gasoline and natural gas in Serbia until 2011.

During Medvedev's visit, Gazprom and Serbijagas, Serbia's main gas company, signed agreements creating a joint venture to design the Serbian leg of the proposed South Stream pipeline, which would pipe Russian gas from the Black Sea to Europe.

South Stream competes with the Western-backed Nabucco pipeline project that would transport gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, bypassing Russia.

Gazprom and Serbijagas also set up a joint venture to construct an underground gas storage facility. Gazprom will have a majority stake in both projects.

Serbia instituted the highest possible security measures for the Russian president's eight-hour visit. Some 6,000 police officers are on duty in the capital.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report