Ceremonial cannons fired and church bells pealed in Belgrade yesterday as President Vladimir Putin arrived to a rousing welcome in Serbia, a key Moscow ally, where he will confer Russia’s top award to his counterpart.
Tens of thousands of Serbs marched through the capital in a parade in Putin’s honour.
“Welcome honoured President Putin, dear friend,” read one of many billboards around the city bearing a mix of Russian and Serbian flags.
“I’m delighted to be able to visit friendly, brotherly Serbia,” Putin said after being welcomed at Belgrade airport by his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic.
The parade, whose participants come from across Serbia, will culminate at the massive Saint Sava church, one of Orthodox Christianity’s largest houses of worship.
In recent days vendors have been selling T-shirts, mugs and books bearing Putin’s face, while a central Belgrade fountain has been lit up with the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag.
Although Serbia aspires to join the European Union, it has kept up close ties with Russia, its historical “Orthodox big brother” whose people also share Slavic origins.
However, it “is more an emotional than a rational relationship”, explained Serbian economic analyst Biljana Stepanovic.
According to a 2017 Serbian government survey, one-quarter of the population believe Russia and the EU are the country’s joint top donors for development aid.
In reality, 75% of donations come from the EU or its member states, while Russia doesn’t make the top nine.
The West also outpaces Russia in terms of direct investment and trade.
However, the affection for Moscow is fanned by its unyielding support on the emotive issue of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that broke away in a 1998-99 guerilla war.
Serbia has never accepted the split and Russia similarly rejects it, wielding its veto power at the United Nations to thwart Kosovo’s dreams of joining.
In return, Belgrade has refused to join international trade sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Graffiti reading “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia” can sometimes be spotted on Serbian streets.
At a news conference after holding talks with Vucic, Putin accused authorities in Kosovo of taking a series of provocative steps, including deciding to set up its own army, a move he said had ratcheted up tensions with Serbia.
He said he thought the decision to set up an army was illegal.
Putin is “Serbia’s salvation”, said retired general Mitar Petkic, who had camped for hours in front of the Saint Sava church to welcome the Russian leader.
“The EU is falling apart, when we join, it will not exist anymore,” the 66-year-old told AFP.
Jelena Bogicevic held a banner reading “Welcome Putin, the legend”.
“I came to ask him to help us save Kosovo. It is a Serbian land and it should remain Serbian,” the pensioner said.
However, the fanfare does not mask what Russia considers recent setbacks in the Balkans, where the West has increased its influence.
Moscow was unable to prevent Montenegro from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in 2017, an objective in which Macedonia is also moving towards after ratifying a name change agreement to end a decades-long dispute with Greece.
If Macedonia succeeds, seven countries bordering Serbia – which does not aspire to join – will be in the Nato sphere.
Only neighbouring Bosnia will also not be a member, due to the veto of its Serb population.
Before his arrival, Putin accused the West of “destabilising” the Balkans with efforts to expand Nato, an accusation that the United States often lobs in the direction of the Russian president.
Maxim Samorukov, an analyst on Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Putin is visiting Serbia mainly to seek “political prestige” and show that there is a “Russian influence in all parts of the world”.
“The Balkans as such are of little importance” and do not represent “a priority of Russian foreign policy”, he added.
Moscow does, however, have some stake in the region.
Serbia imports two-thirds of its natural gas and crude oil from Russia, while Russian giant Gazprom owns the Serbian oil company NIS.
According to analyst Stepanovic, Russia “has not yet used up” this leverage, “but the potential for influence is there” because Serbia cannot “afford an interruption in deliveries”.
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