Serbia and Russia defend ties as spy scandal erupts before leaders meet
Russian former deputy military attache filmed giving cash to ex-Serbian officer in Belgrade
President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic: “We . . . have been confronted for many years with the highly offensive activities of various intelligence services on the territory of Serbia.” Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP
Belgrade and Moscow have said their close relationship will not be ruined by a spy scandal that erupted after an alleged Russian intelligence officer was filmed covertly giving cash to a retired Serbian army officer.
President Aleksandar Vucic convened Serbia’s national security council on Thursday evening to discuss surveillance footage published online that he said showed Georgy Kleban, Russia’s former deputy military attache to Belgrade, meeting an ex-lieutenant colonel in the Serbian army who he identified only as ZK.
The footage shows the two men shaking hands and embracing and then drinking beer in a Belgrade bar, after which ZK returns to his car, opens a plastic bag that Kleban gave him and pulls out an envelope full of cash.
Mr Vucic said the meeting took place in December last year and was monitored by Serbia’s security services, but he insisted that the footage was not theirs. He did not say who filmed the rendezvous or posted the footage on YouTube.
The incident comes as Mr Vucic prepares for talks in Moscow early next month with Russian president Vladimir Putin and comes under pressure from the US and other western states over Belgrade’s close political, economic and military relationship with the Kremlin, despite Serbia’s stated ambition of joining the EU.
Mr Vucic recently announced the purchase of an advanced air-defence system from Moscow and has refused to back western sanctions on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine. At the same time, Belgrade relies on Russia for energy and political support in opposing Kosovo’s independence.
“I don’t see any logic in this,” Mr Vucic said of Russia’s apparent spying operations in Serbia.
“Mr Kleban is no longer on the territory of the Republic of Serbia. I am convinced that President Putin was not informed of these matters,” Serbian media quoted him as saying.
“We, as a country, have been confronted for many years with the highly offensive activities of various intelligence services on the territory of Serbia, and we can divide these into two groups – the most developed countries of the world and a group of regional countries with a strong interest in . . . Serbia,” Mr Vucic added.
“Not only will we not change our policies, but we will fight even more vigorously for the military neutrality of our country and . . . never be people who allow someone else to rule our country.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Russia and Serbia on Thursday as “partners, brothers and allies. Nothing can affect that.”
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the spy furore as “provocative actions”.
“We’ve got used to the fact that a few days before contacts at the highest level. . . interesting’ stories appear that are made out to be sensations. Then time passes and it is all either denied or turns out to be some hastily concocted provocation,” she said.