PUTIN “SUPERSTAR” IN VISIT to SERBIA
He has bars named after him, his fame is celebrated on T-shirts and mugs, his face decorates the walls: Vladimir Putin is welcomed as a “superstar” Thursday in Serbia, his ally in the Balkans.
“Let’s welcome Putin”: Serbs were invited to participate in a welcome parade, from the center of Belgrade to St. Sava’s Church — one of the largest Orthodox places of worship in the world, recently partially renovated with financing by the gas giant Gazprom — and where they will cheer the Russian president, accompanied by his counterpart Aleksandar Vucic.
Mr. Putin’s popularity is immense in Serbia.
Although aspiring to join the European Union, Belgrade refuses to join the international sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. In addition to a historical attachment to the “big brother of the Orthodox Slav”, this infatuation is the result of Moscow’s support on the Kosovo issue, whose independence the Serbs do not accept.
The Russian veto excludes any UN membership of this former province, which Serbia lost control of after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. “Kosovo is Serbia; Crimea is Russia” one can sometimes read in Serbian streets.
Conscious of the popularity of the visitor and facing a series of demonstrations of his opposition, the strong man of Belgrade, Aleksandar Vucic, described Monday on the private channel Pink TV (pro-government), his very close relations with his guest. “When I went to his house to give him an icon, he received me at 10:45 pm, we were alone and he played the piano.”
Domination of NATO
The warmth of the Belgrade welcome will not hide the recent setbacks of Russia in the Balkans. Moscow was unable to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO in 2017, a route that Macedonia is currently taking. If Skopje succeeds, all the countries bordering Serbia except Bosnia will be in the NATO sphere. The reason: the veto of the Serbian component of this multicommunity country, whose political leader, Milorad Dodik, will have an aside with Vladimir Putin.
In the Serbian press, Putin on Tuesday denounced the West’s intent to dominate in the Balkans, as “an important factor of destabilization.” [See our two-part account of the big Putin interview]
For Maxime Samorukov, an analyst in Russia at the Carnegie International Policy Center, the visit is more important for Serbia: “the Balkans as such are of little importance” in Moscow’s eyes and do not represent ” a priority of Russian foreign policy. ” Vladimir Putin comes to seek “political prestige” and to show that there is a “Russian influence in all parts of the globe.” “A European country that presents Russia as a partner as important as the rest of Europe, of course, it’s a pleasure,” says Samorukov, adding that “Russia will not fight to maintain” a major role in the Balkans.”
More emotional than rational
“The Russian-Serbian relationship “is more emotional than rational,” says Serbian economic analyst Biljana Stepanovic in Belgrade. According to a December 2017 study of the Serbian government, a quarter of the inhabitants (24%) refer to Russia as the main donor to their country, the same proportion saying it is the EU. However, 75% of donations come from the Union or from member countries, when Russia does not even appear in the top nine of the ranking. In terms of direct investment and trade, the proportion is also in favor of Europe. Moscow, however, has an asset in its sleeve: Serbia imports from Russia two-thirds of its needs for natural gas and crude oil. And the Russian Gazprom owns the Serbian oil company NIS. According to Ms Stepanovic, Russia “has not yet used” this lever, “but the potential for influence is there.”
[But for Vucic, Russia is simple pragmatism –tr.]
“Give me cheap gas from elsewhere, I’m interested. But I have not seen it yet,” said Aleksandar Vucic in his interview with Pink.