Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the United States and some European countries of stoking East-West tensions in the Balkans ahead of a visit to Serbia this week.
In an interview with Serbia's Beta news agency on February 19, Lavrov claimed that what he called "anti-Russia" nations are pressing Balkan states to choose to be "with the West or with Russia" -- and making the former a condition of joining the EU and NATO.
Lavrov, who is scheduled to visit Serbia on February 21, told Serbian broadcaster N1 TV that any effort to force Balkan nations to pick sides is "very wrong" and that Russia intends to maintain its interests and ties with Serbia and its neighbors.
A new EU strategy for the Western Balkans says that Serbia and Montenegro could become members of the bloc by 2025 -- a target date also embraced by Belgrade.
While EU leaders have laid down tough conditions for joining -- particularly on establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing fundamental rights, and settling regional territorial disputes -- they say they have not pushed anti-Russian policies as a condition of membership.
Serbia, in particular, has continued to nurture close ties with Moscow and has said it will not join the EU's economic sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
Belgrade has not sought to join NATO -- unlike Macedonia, which is seeking to join the military alliance, and Montenegro, which became a member in 2017.
Belgrade's neutral military policy has not been openly opposed by U.S. or European leaders.
Western countries have raised questions, however, about Serbia's establishment of a joint Russian-Serbian humanitarian center in the southern city of Nis, which Western officials suspect may be used by Russia to harbor spies and disseminate propaganda in the Balkans.
A U.S. lawmaker who visited Serbia last year said that to secure the flow of investment from the West, U.S. officials were looking for "an indication that [Serbia] is really leaning toward Western democracies and free-market capitalism and leaning against the type of aggression that, unfortunately [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is demonstrating with Russia currently."
Lavrov denounced what he called "hysteria" in the West over the humanitarian center, where he said only four Russian citizens currently are working.
He asserted that "Washington and some European capitals send their emissaries to the Balkans for this exact purpose: don't be friends with Russia, refuse joint interaction with it in all areas," and said that Western policies are "increasing tensions in Europe."
U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of causing tension through actions such as its military interference in Ukraine and what Western governments say are its efforts to sow discord and meddle in elections in the West.
Lavrov also said Russia would oppose any move by the EU to force Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is recognized by 116 other nations, including most EU members.
Lavrov said that Russia would continue to block Kosovo from obtaining recognition at the United Nations until Belgrade and Pristina negotiate a compromise on the matter of sovereignty, as advocated by Serbian leaders.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Interfax