Russia's Vladimir Putin visits Balkan ally Serbia
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Serbia on Thursday for talks that are expected to focus on economic issues and energy, including construction of the South Stream gas pipeline that has been opposed by the European Union.
Serbia finds itself caught in the middle of Moscow's row with the West over Ukraine. The Balkan nation is increasingly confronted with a choice: continue down its officially declared path toward EU membership, or give up that goal and forge even closer ties with its traditional Slavic ally Russia.
Although Serbian officials say they respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and do not support Russia's annexation of Crimea, they have refused to impose sanctions against Russia. They say that would be disastrous for their country's stagnating economy — especially since most of its energy sector is controlled by Gazprom, the Russian energy giant.
Instead — and despite warnings from the EU — Serbia is hoping to capitalize on Russia's counter-ban on Western goods by signing deals with Putin that would increase its food exports to Russia.
Putin is expected to pressure Serbia to start building the Moscow-controlled gas pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine and transport the Russian gas to the heart of Europe. The EU has called on Serbia and member states to not start building the project, citing concerns over Russia's dual role as pipeline owner and gas supplier.
Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.
Putin on Thursday will also attend a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, from the Nazi German occupation by the Red Army and Communist Yugoslav Partisans.