Serbia seeks to strengthen ties with Russia

Wed, Sep 12, 2012, 01:00

THE SERBIAN president has sought to strengthen his country’s ties with Russia at his latest meeting with Kremlin counterpart Vladimir Putin, amid EU fears that Belgrade’s new leaders will cool its relations with Brussels.

Elections in May saw a liberal, strongly pro-western president and government ousted in favour of Tomislav Nikolic and a coalition led by Socialist prime minister Ivica Dacic, both of whom were allies of Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.

Mr Nikolic and Mr Dacic now lead more moderate parties and insist they have no nostalgia for the bloody Milosevic years or for Serb nationalism. They have both also declared their intention to co- operate with the EU and lead Serbia towards eventual accession.

Some of Mr Nikolic’s trenchant comments since becoming president have angered Serbia’s neighbours, however. He is determined to rebalance Belgrade’s foreign policy by placing more focus on ties with China and traditional ally Russia.

At their second meeting in recent months, Mr Nikolic yesterday invited Mr Putin to Serbia in December to attend the launch of work on the Moscow-led South Stream pipeline project, which will bring Russian natural gas to Europe in competition with a planned EU pipeline.

Serbia is also hoping to attract other major Russian investments and possibly direct financial aid to ease mounting economic difficulties. It is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund, which froze a standby loan to Belgrade this year after the last government broke spending pledges.

“I thank you for the support that I feel from Russian officials,” Mr Nikolic told Mr Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“All the Serb officials who have held talks with Russian officials feel that this is the start of an absolutely new stage in relations between Serbia and Russia,” he added.

In an interview published ahead of his meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Nikolic said: “The only thing I love more than Russia is Serbia.” He vowed that Belgrade’s relations with Moscow “will be completely open, just as they are with the EU. The EU will never hear a lie from me.”

Mr Nikolic also thanked Moscow for its refusal to follow more than 90 states, including the US and most EU members, including Ireland, in recognising Kosovo’s independence.

Russia used its Security Council veto to block United Nations recognition of Pristina’s 2008 declaration of sovereignty from Belgrade. It said yesterday it placed no significance on Monday’s decision by 23 EU states, the US and Turkey to end their supervision of Kosovo’s independence.

“Because the international steering group has no official recognised status . . . Kosovo continues to be a quasi-state with no international legal status,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

US president Barack Obama congratulated Kosovo on reaching a “historic milestone”, but said there was “more work to be done, as Kosovo’s leaders now assume full responsibility for ensuring that the principles enshrined in its declaration of independence and constitution are realised for every citizen”.