Putin in Serbia to secure Russian interests

BELGRADE - Vladimir Putin was expected in Belgrade Thursday to secure Russian interests in Serbia, its traditional ally but also EU aspirant, and to attend 70th anniversary of Belgrade's liberation from Nazi occupation.

"Our joint obligation is to oppose to glorification of Nazism and to attempts to revise outcome of the World War II... I am convinced that celebrations in Belgrade will contribute to it," Putin said in an interview to prominent Serbian Politika daily.

"The vaccine against the virus of nazism has weakened in certain European countries," he said, referring notably to Baltic countries.

The Russian President, whose ties with the European Union and the United States have deteriorated over Ukraine conflict, said the situation in that country was "particularly worrying, as a coup d'etat was executed by groups of nationalists and radicals."

He also ratched up the Cold War-style rhetoric, accusing US President of displaying a hostile attitude towards Russia snd warning against "attempts to blackmail" Moscow.

"Together with the limits introduced against entire sectors of our economy it is hard to call such approach anything but hostile," Putin told the Serbian daily, in comments released by the Kremlin late Wednesday

"We are hoping that our partners will understand the recklessness of attempts to blackmail Russia, (and) remember what discord between large nuclear powers can do to strategic stability," Putin added.

Despite the distinct diplomatic chill, the Russian president can still count on a warm welcome in Belgrade, a traditional ally that has refused to align with the EU sanctions against Moscow.

But the EU, which has declared Putin persona non grata for his role in the Ukraine crisis, told Belgrade earlier this week it should prove its credentials as a future member during the visit.

Brussels expects that Serbia's "pro-EU direction will also be confirmed during this visit," a EU foreign policy chief's spokeswoman said.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis in November, Serbia has been trying to balance its obligations towards the EU, with which it launched accession talks in January, and maintaining good ties with Moscow.

Russia has backed Belgrade in the past and has opposed Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

Upon his arrival Putin and his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic will lay wreaths at cemetery where Russian soldiers killed in the October 1944 battle for Belgrade liberation were buried.

Strengthening ties between Belgrade and Moscow 

For Russia it is important that Serbia's accession to the EU does not go against Moscow's interests.

"The main goal of the visit is to buttress existing links. Energy will be high" on the agenda, Fedor Loukianov, editor of "Russia in global politics" newspaper told AFP.

Serbia is one of the countries on the South Stream pipeline, a 16-billion-euro (S$26 billion) project aimed at reducing Moscow's reliance on Ukraine as a transit country for its natural gas following disputes with Kiev that led to interrupted gas supplies to Europe.

The European Commission has said the project is not in line with its rules and threatened to fine member states if they go ahead with construction, prompting Bulgaria to halt work on the project.

Russia signed the South Stream accord with Serbia in 2008 and plans to begin construction this year, but Belgrade has said it will wait until Brussels and Moscow come to an agreement.

Russian giant Gazprom, which is in charge of construction, is also the majority owner of Serbia's oil monopoly NIS with 51 per cent stake.

This project aside, Russia and Serbia have joined hands for military cooperation by setting up a rapid response base in the southern town of Nis, where Russian aircraft were based, to intervene upon demand throughout the region.

Moscow has also helped Serbia's devastated economy, providing a US$800-million loan in 2013 for rebuilding rail infrastructure and another of US$500 million to help reduce Serbia's record budget deficit in April.

The two countries also have a free-trade agreement, while Russia is Serbia's third largest foreign trade partner.

Total exchange between Serbia and Russia in 2013 was almost US$3 billion, out of which imports from Russia rose to US$1.9 billion, thanks to its petrol and gas industry.

Apart from meetings with Serbian leaders, Putin will attend a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the city's liberation from Nazi occupation.

He is also expected to address the crowd.

More than 3,000 soldiers will take part in the military parade, which will also feature a Russian aerobatics display.