Vladimir Putin backs Serbian premier Aleksandar Vucic

West claims Russia increasing its role in political exploitation of tense Balkan states

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin with Serbia’s prime minister and candidate for the presidency Aleksandar Vucic at the Kremlin on Monday. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/EPA

Russian president Vladimir Putin started this week the way he ended the last – by endorsing a European presidential candidate who wants to strengthen ties with the Kremlin.

On Friday, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen visited Moscow, and on Monday it was the turn of Aleksandar Vucic, the current Serbian prime minister who is expected to become head of state in elections this coming Sunday.

Vucic, who served as a minister under ultra-nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, insists Serbia's future is inside the European Union, but he is also determined to boost economic and military ties with Russia.

He is now awaiting delivery of Russian fighter jets and tanks, and hoped to discuss a deal for air-defence missiles with Putin – a prospect that will further unnerve Serbia’s neighbours at a time of tension in the Balkans.


If Putin’s endorsement of Le Pen was implied by the presidential treatment she received from the Kremlin, his backing for Vucic was explicit.

"We are sure the elections . . . will be conducted at the highest level. We wish success to the current authorities," Putin told his guest, saying he was certain that Russia-Serbia relations would continue to develop "positively".

“We really want to discuss with you the situation in the region,” he added, “because . . . we see a certain deterioration.”

Western powers accuse Russia of exacerbating and seeking to exploit tensions within and between Balkan states, in a bid to hamper their efforts to join the European Union and also, in most cases, the Nato military alliance.

Montenegro and Macedonia

Montenegro claims Russian agents were behind a failed coup attempt last October, and in crisis-hit Macedonia Moscow accuses the West of plotting to carve up the country to help create a "Greater Albania".

Russia says a prime mover in this conspiracy is Kosovo, a strongly pro-western state with whom Serbia said it teetered "on the brink of conflict" in January during a dispute over a controversial train service and other issues.

Moscow is Belgrade’s strongest ally in opposing Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, which came nine years after Nato bombing ended Milosevic’s brutal crackdown on a Kosovar Albanian insurgency.

Most Serbs still deplore Nato’s actions and polls show the country of 7.3 million is strongly against membership of the alliance – a feeling Vucic reiterated during recent events to mark 18 years since the start of the bombing campaign.

“Serbia is now stronger than it was in the past years and decades,” Vucic said at a commemoration on Friday. “It will never again suffer aggression from which it will not emerge victorious.”

While striking a nationalistic tone at home, where critics accuse him of weakening checks and balances and putting pressure on independent media and civil society, with European leaders Vucic plays the role of regional statesman.

Democracy and corruption

Meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin earlier this month, Vucic insisted Serbia was doing its utmost to foster peace and stability in the Balkans, and would continue to do so with the help of EU states – which see him as a stabilising factor and so temper criticism of his record on democracy and corruption.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now chairman of a Kremlin-controlled gas pipeline company, attended a major Vucic campaign rally last Friday, but the day's most memorable remarks came from another guest – Pyotr Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament.

"Today, the European Union is reminiscent of the Soviet Union nearing its collapse, when not a single decision could be made without consulting the supreme authorities . . . until now, they have not offered the world anything except consumer society and protection for the LGBT community," Tolstoy said.

Recalling the Nato bombing of 1999, he asked Serbia to forgive Russia for not being strong enough to help back then.

"But now there is a different Russia in the world, and a different Serbia," said Tolstoy, claiming the West was riled by Moscow's resurgence. "It annoys them. They take what is happening in Syria and Ukraine particularly badly," he added.

“But Russia is returning to the global arena, and they will have to live with it.”