BELGRADE -- The Serbian ruling party has criticized a speech by the Russian ambassador to Belgrade at a nationalist party rally as meddling by Moscow in Serbia's internal affairs, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.
Six weeks after he blasted Serbian politicians and intellectuals at a Belgrade security forum for leaving it to Russia to defend Serbian interests abroad, Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Konuzin praised the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at a rally in Belgrade on October 29.
He told the rally that the SNS -- despite being founded just three years ago -- is the strongest rival to the Democratic Party ahead of general elections slated for mid-2012. He also said it was "one of the main indicators of the mood of Serbian citizens."
But Jelena Trivan, a spokeswoman for Serbian President Boris Tadic's ruling Democratic Party, told RFE/RL on November 1 that Konuzin overstepped his diplomatic mandate.
She said, however, that his act cannot be compared to appearances by foreign guests, such as Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who showed up at her party's campaign events two years ago.
"I ironically say that Mr. Konuzin feels so much at home that he forgot that this country is his host and he is the guest," Trivan said.
Konuzin enjoys widespread support among ultranationalist groups in Serbia. Posters with his picture and the slogan "Konuzin for President" were put up several weeks ago in Belgrade.
The SNS is a relatively moderate offshoot of the ultranationalist Radical Party, whose long-standing leader Vojislav Seselj is on trial for war crimes at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The SNS does not oppose European integration but places the fight for Kosovo and defense of Serbs living in other countries at the top of its priorities.
Rather than illustrating a rift over Belgrade's strong European integration ambitions -- which Moscow does not view fondly -- for some Serbian analysts the episode with Konuzin highlights the leverage Russia has over Serbia.
Russia has been Serbia's staunchest ally in recent years in its fight to reverse the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed its full support for Konuzin, saying his participation at the rally was "normal diplomatic practice."
But Gennady Sisoyev, a foreign policy commentator for the Russian daily "Kommersant," says Konuzin's actions violate Russian diplomatic protocol.
"I am not aware of any other case where a Russian ambassador anywhere takes part and speaks at preelection rallies of parties fighting for power," Sisoyev says. "Not only Serbia, but no other country would tolerate this."
Nenad Canak, leader of a tiny regional civic party that backs Tadic's government, said Konuzin should be declared persona non grata and ordered to leave Serbia.