Serbia seeks to use Xi Jinping visit to boost ties with China

Countries expected to sign 20 trade and investment deals during Chinese president’s visit

President Xi Jinping and his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic, pass by Serbian army Honor Guards upon Mr Xi’s arrival to Belgrade: the visit comes just days after prime minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic cancelled trips to Washington and Brussels. Photograph: Serbian Presidential Press Service via AP

President Xi Jinping and his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolic, pass by Serbian army Honor Guards upon Mr Xi’s arrival to Belgrade: the visit comes just days after prime minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic cancelled trips to Washington and Brussels. Photograph: Serbian Presidential Press Service via AP

 

Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Serbia on Friday, with Belgrade seeking to boost relations with Beijing and Moscow as a counterweight to increasingly difficult ties with the West.

At the start of the first visit to Belgrade by a Chinese leader in more than 30 years, Mr Xi was welcomed at the city’s airport by Serbia’s president Tomislav Nikolic and prime minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic.

The three-day visit, during which the countries are expected to sign about 20 trade and investment deals, comes just days after Mr Vucic cancelled trips to Washington and Brussels following demonstrations in Belgrade.

Thousands of people marched through the city last weekend to protest against the allegedly illegal night-time demolition of part of Belgrade’s bohemian Savamala district to make way for a vast and lavish waterfront development.

Mr Vucic has suggested the protests are being stoked by his enemies to oust his allies and destabilise Serbia, as he and his populist party seek to form a government following a general election victory in April.

The editor of the Informer newspaper, which is seen as a mouthpiece for Mr Vucic’s circle, claimed to have “concrete evidence” that US and EU envoys in Serbia were trying to “radicalise” the protests and foment a “colour revolution” similar to those that ousted pro-Russian leaders in countries including Georgia and Ukraine.

Mr Vucic met the US and EU ambassadors to Serbia on Monday and, though he declined to reveal what was discussed, statements and photographs released later gave the impression they were not easy.

Authoritarian streak

“Serbia protects her dignity and I do not respond well to pressure. We will continue on our EU path but, on some issues, we have different points of view.”

Some Serbs see a growing authoritarian streak in Mr Vucic, who was an ultra-nationalist and served as a media minister under warmongering 1990s leader Slobodan Milosevic before remodelling himself as a pro-EU conservative.

While publicly backing Mr Vucic’s declared aim to guide Serbia into the EU, member states are aware of rising concern over the dominant role of his allies in business and the media and rising state pressure on critical voices.

Anger over the nocturnal demolition of part of Savamala by masked, unidentified men on April 24th fed into wider fears of rising corruption and impunity among people in power, the vast majority of whom are allies of Mr Vucic.