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Serbian Officials Tuning Up For Putin's Visit To Belgrade

Graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in a suburb of Belgrade (file photo)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Belgrade on January 17, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic is hoping to hit all the right notes. Literally.

Dacic has been known to belt out a tune or two at high-level meetings. And for Serbia, there may be few higher-level meetings than the planned get-together between Putin, the most popular foreign politician in Serbia, and Serbian officials in Belgrade.

"Putin's visits are mostly short and there's not much chance for a more relaxed atmosphere," Dacic, who is also first deputy prime minister, recently told the daily Vecernje Novosti.

"[Putin] likes to sing, and my choice would be what's according to me the most beautiful Russian song, Moscow Nights, and, of course, Kalinka," Dacic added.

Moscow Nights (Podmoskovnye Vechera) was a Soviet-era standard on Radio Moscow broadcasts, while Kalinka, one of the most-famous Russian folk songs, is "an obligatory part" of the diplomatic repertoire he has sung at meetings with Russians, other Europeans, and even Americans, who "enjoyed and applauded it," he said.

Serbia and Russia have long shared close cultural and economic ties, including Slavic cultural and Orthodox affinities.

The vector of development in Russia-Serbia relations in the new year will certainly be set by the Russian president's visit to Serbia."
-- Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Chepurin

And though Belgrade has professed many Western-oriented goals, such as membership in the European Union, it has also worked to keep strong ties with Moscow, taking its military hardware, holding joint military exercises, and developing deeper economic ties.

For its part, Russia has blocked international recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state, aligning with Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo's secession in 2008 from the former Yugoslavia. It also gifted Serbia six MiG-29 fighter jets recently to bolster Serbia’s military.

The Kremlin remains committed to maintaining its presence in the region, and Putin's visit, his 14th meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in the past six years, "is, obviously, part of that effort," says Jasmin Mujanovic, a U.S.-based Balkan analyst and author of the book Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans.

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"For Russia, hot off their major success in Syria, their show of strength in the Azov, they are keen to continue flexing their diplomatic muscle in their now greater near abroad," he told RFE/RL, in a reference to Putin's alliance with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian actions since its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea nearly five years ago.

"Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia are central to this approach, at least as far as the Balkans are concerned. And for local strongmen like Vucic and Milorad Dodik, the [Republika Srpska] member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, Russia is the central pillar of their strategy to create parallel or even alternative arrangements to the erstwhile hegemony of the EU-U.S. consensus in the region," he added.

Russia suffered several setbacks in the Balkans last year and is looking to get back on track in 2019.

Macedonia is on the verge of ending a name dispute with Greece, potentially clearing a path to NATO accession, something Moscow strongly opposes.

Serbia's importance to Russia has seemingly risen as the Kremlin looks to keep a foothold in a region where it has lost influence with former Yugoslav states like Croatia and Slovenia joining the EU and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 2.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 2.

In Montenegro, which joined the transatlantic security alliance in 2017 and aspires to EU membership, a trial implicating Moscow in an attempted coup plot continues, even though the Kremlin has denied claims that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the alleged plot.

But Moscow might have welcomed some other news from the region, including the election in Bosnia of Dodik, a Serb nationalist who has long courted the Kremlin. Dodik favors an independent Republika Srpska, which many analysts say works to Russia’s advantage in its efforts to undermine the westward integration of the region.

Russia has struck a close relationship with the Bosnian Serb entity through the provision of police training and the exchange of military knowledge.

Russia also keeps a presence through its Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in the southern Serbian city of Nis. Moscow has pushed for the center to receive diplomatic status, a move that has sparked accusations from the West that it is being used for intelligence-gathering by the Kremlin.

Serbia, meanwhile, continues to oppose U.S. and EU sanctions on Moscow.

In a show of the Kremlin's aim to curry favor with Serbia, Putin last week awarded Vucic with the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky award, which is usually bestowed upon civil servants for at least 20 years of "highly meritorious service" and is rarely given to foreigners.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic: "We can be even more efficient in the reforms that we conduct."
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic: "We can be even more efficient in the reforms that we conduct."

The award, which Vucic is likely to receive during the visit, underlines Putin's popularity among the majority of Serbs. A recent survey by Faktor Plus showed 57 percent named the Russian leader as the most-trusted foreign politician.

"Vucic is the first Serb to receive this high award in our time, which in itself speaks volumes," said Aleksandr Chepurin, Russia's ambassador to Serbia.

Chepurin predicted the Kosovo situation would be high on the Putin-Vucic meeting agenda, as well as strengthening bilateral relations and cooperation in economic and social spheres such as energy, trade, innovation, technological development, and the digital economy.

"Protecting the interests of our countries, Russia and Serbia, instead of satisfying the interests of the West -- that's basically the philosophy of both the Russian and the Serbian leadership," he told Tanjug on January 2.

He suggested that "the vector of development in Russia-Serbia relations in the new year will certainly be set by the Russian president's visit to Serbia."

Singing the praises of that kinship may be easy for some, but not all Serbs see the relationship as harmonious.

Serbia's reliance on Russian support on the UN Security Council to hold Kosovo at bay has given Moscow more leverage than some are comfortable with and will continue to do so as long as the issue remains open, said London School of Economics professor James Ker-Lindsay.

Meanwhile, Serbia's economic prospects lie more with deeper integration into structures such as the European Union, he argued.

"There seems to be a wariness of Russia in many Serbian circles. Many senior officials are aware that it is an unequal relationship and that Moscow's favor cannot be relied on. It will look out for its own interests above those of Serbia," he told RFE/RL.

"The degree of pro-Russian sentiment is often overplayed. Polls have regularly shown that while people do believe that Russia is a good friend to Serbia, not least of all over Kosovo, most Serbs do not believe that Russia is a shining example of the future they want. When given the choice, most Serbs still believe that the EU offers a better model for their future than Russia," he added.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said last month that Serbia's foreign policy priority remains joining the EU and that "we can be even more efficient in the reforms that we conduct, primarily because of our citizens."

With the government facing opposition-led protests recently by thousands of voters over what they see as a slide in Serbia's democratic credentials and the use of state media for propaganda, Vucic hopes Putin, who once sang Blueberry Hill at a black-tie charity event, won't change his tune.