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Serbia To Host Putin, Hold Military Parade

  • RFE/RL's Balkan Service

A woman walks past posters showing Russian President Vladimir Putin reading "Welcome, President" in Belgrade on October 15.

A woman walks past posters showing Russian President Vladimir Putin reading "Welcome, President" in Belgrade on October 15.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is paying an official visit to Serbia for talks with officials and will be the guest of honor at Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years.

Putin is expected to receive a warm welcome in Belgrade on October 16 as the Serbian capital marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

Soviet Army troops helped Yugoslav partisans liberate Belgrade and Serbian officials have welcomed President Putin's decision to attend the parade.

More recently, Russia gave Serbia moral support by angrily criticizing the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and backed Belgrade's opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been recognized by the United States but not by Moscow and has been unable to get a seat at the United Nations.

The two mostly Slavic nations are linked by the Orthodox Christian faith and Russia has championed the rights of Serbs in ethnically mixed Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"We have joint roots, language, faith, customs, and culture," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic told Russian television. "In all wars we were always on the same side."

WATCH: Serbs prepare for Russian leader's visit.

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin is due to meet with Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic for talks on military cooperation and economic ties, including Serbia's participation in Russia's South Stream gas pipeline project, which the EU has suspended in member states.

The European Commission released a report on candidate countries earlier this month that warned Belgrade's plans to build a portion of the South Stream pipeline and its refusal to follow the EU's lead on sanctions against Russia could jeopardize Serbia's bid for EU membership.

In comments to RFE/RL, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what the EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

Vucic pointed out that within the EU there are five countries that have not recognized the independence of Serbia's former republic of Kosovo.

However, he told reporters last week that "Putin will hear that Serbia is on the European path. We have other relations we are developing with the Russian Federation, but the strategic goal is not in question -- Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of the Russian leader's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

People around the city pointed to the long friendship between Serbs and Russians as reason to welcome Russia's leader.

Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, welcomed Putin's visit.

"Nothing better could happen to us," he said. "Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

But Dragan Sutanovac, who was Serbia’s defense minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced "a desire for idolatry in regard to Putin."

Construction engineer Predrag Markovic saw it as natural that Putin would attend a celebration marking the liberation of Belgrade.

"We wouldn't mind if other leaders came too, but I think that Russia and the former Soviet Union were the most important in the liberation of Belgrade," he said.

Slobodan Knezevic said Putin's attendance at the anniversary was appropriate.

"It is really a good that they invited the Russians and Putin. Serbia should thank them for many things. They were always helping us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to stand only by their side. But it is great that they invited them."

The visit is likely to shower Putin with positive attention before he faces Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan.

Putin leaves for that summit right after the visit to Belgrade.

With reporting by TASS, Reuters, AFP, and AP