Serbia seeks more arms and energy from Russia despite western qualms

US official recently urged Belgrade to choose between the EU and Moscow

Russian president Vladimir Putin (right) with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic during their meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Tuesday. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Russian president Vladimir Putin (right) with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic during their meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Tuesday. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

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Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss trade, energy and weapons deals, as Belgrade continues to strengthen ties with Moscow despite criticism from the US and some Balkan states.

Mr Vucic says Serbia should join the European Union while remaining outside Nato and refusing to sign up to western-led sanctions against Russia, which has strong historical and economic links to Belgrade and offers it diplomatic support on key issues.

At the start of talks at the Kremlin, Mr Vucic told Mr Putin in Russian that “we have successfully increased our trade turnover and done a lot on the question of our co-operation. We hope political and economic co-operation can be raised to the highest level”.

Mr Putin said Serbia could potentially connect to the major Turkish Stream pipeline that Russia wants to build to carry gas under the Black Sea to Europe. Those supplies could prove lucrative for Belgrade, if included in a deal agreed on Monday to allow Serbia to re-export Russian gas to other countries.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks with Mr Putin, Mr Vucic said they “would discuss a large amount of very, very important questions, and we expect that a large number of important agreements will be signed.”

Fighter jets

Mr Vucic said he hoped for deals in energy, trade and Russian investment, and wanted to expand military co-operation that recently saw Moscow donate six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia’s military along with dozens of armoured vehicles.

“We also want to buy a minimum of six helicopters, air-defence systems and many other things because, don’t forget, Serbia is an independent and neutral country...Serbia should be strong so as to be able to preserve its land,” Mr Vucic told Russian news agency Tass.

Serbia’s military build-up has unnerved some of its neighbours in former Yugoslavia, which broke up in a series of wars in the 1990s when Belgrade was the main aggressor under nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic. Mr Vucic served as his information minister, but now insists he wants a peaceful and stable Balkans.

Serbia and Russia were angered in October when US state department official Hoyt Brian Yee said Belgrade “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far apart” in reference to its relations with Moscow and Brussels.

Mr Vucic told Tass that Serbia would not bend to pressure, and sees “Russia as one of the key players in [our] future relations.”

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