BELGRADE -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the Serbian capital this week bearing gifts: a $1.5 billion loan and a clutch of energy and development deals.
In return, Medvedev did a little favor for himself. Speaking before the Serbian parliament, he announced that Belgrade -- Moscow's closest ally in the Balkans -- would play an integral role in Russia's plans for a new security strategy for Europe.
Serbia and Russia "have a similar approach to assessing the international situation, as well as issues of European security," Medvedev said. "We are, of course, prepared to promote our initiative together with our Serbian partners."
Serbian President Boris Tadic said his country was "open" to the initiative.
Details about a concrete proposal have been few. But Medvedev's invitation has prompted speculation that Moscow is using its close ties with Belgrade to gain a European foothold for what, until now, has been a largely marginalized Russian security initiative.
Medvedev first proposed the creation of a new pan-European security body in the summer of 2008. The Russian president said existing organizations like NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were ill-equipped to tackle terrorism and other security issues of the 21st century.
The proposal was seen as reflecting Moscow's longtime resentment of NATO expansion and controversial U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Central Europe.
But even after Washington scrapped the missile-defense deal, Medvedev repeated his conviction that creating a new security architecture for Europe was the "sensible" thing to do. His remarks in Belgrade appear to suggest that Russia is eager to nudge its project forward with the help of a pliable European ally.
No Friends Of NATO
Dusan Reljic, a senior scientific researcher at the Berlin Institute for International and Security Issues, notes that Russia is the Balkan region's chief energy supplier and an important trade partner.
But while both Moscow and Belgrade have an interest in deepening relations, Reljic says the security initiative should not be seen as anything more than an opportunity for Moscow to gain local support for what amounts to an assault on existing security institutions.
"I don't want Europe" -- Serbia's mind-set?
"Russia is trying to compensate for the failings of the OSCE over the past few years, and the absence of any long-term agreements -- as well as new agreements -- with the United States," Reljic says. "Russia is not trying to integrate Serbia in any special system of bilateral relations with Moscow."
Serbia, which is the one Balkan country with no stated interest in NATO membership, maintains an official policy of military neutrality. A recent proposal to set up a NATO office in Serbia raised howls of protest. But Serbs have been largely silent on the Russian proposal.
Some, however, worry that any step by Belgrade to support the Russian plan would spell an end to Serbia's ambitions of joining the European Union and other Western institutions.
Belgrade has won steady encouragement from Brussels as it pursues EU integration. A travel-visa regime was recently lifted against Serbia, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted this week that Belgrade has "crucially improved" its cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal and deserves to proceed with a blocked trade agreement. East vs. West?
But not everyone is convinced the European largesse will extend to approving new security arrangements between Belgrade and Moscow.
Retired General Ninoslav Krstic, who currently heads the Forum for Security and Democracy in Belgrade, an NGO dealing with security issues, says there is currently "no indication" that any security cooperation would include a military dimension.
Still, he says, any further talks on the issue may send Brussels the wrong message, and there "would be a reassessment of Serbia's honesty in its relation to Europe."
Krstic observes that if "you want to share values, you have to share them completely. As I understand it, Serbia wants to maintain common political, cultural, and economic values with Europe. But it doesn't want to maintain common security arrangements. I don't think this is a fair or honest approach by Serbia toward relations with the European Union."
Others, however, argue that the mere threat of a Moscow-Belgrade security partnership may only hasten the EU's drive to bring Serbia into the fold. In this way, Medvedev brought Belgrade not only a loan and energy deals, but a bargaining chip in future talks with Brussels.
Ultimately, however, many are skeptical the Moscow proposal was a proverbial gauntlet meant to force Serbia to choose between East and West.
As Zivorad Kovacevic, a longtime diplomat and the president of the European Movement in Serbia, an NGO working to improve Serbia-EU ties, puts it, "Realistically -- politically speaking -- I don't believe any offer could be presented as a choice along the lines of 'either you join us, or you join NATO.'"