Russian President Putin’s visit asks questions of Belgrade

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade was always going to be a notable event but the enthusiasm on the day was almost overwhelming. An almost reverent aura seemed to surround the mere mention of his visit. His firm and disciplined leadership have gained him the respect of political observers the world over and this was surely evident on his visit to Belgrade. As Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to a sizeable crowd gathered in Belgrade earlier today, he was interrupted on a number of occasions by chants of Putin! Putin! Putin! The adoration of those in attendance for the third-term Russian President was obvious.
During his speech as the guest of honour, President Putin didn’t only highlight the historical importance of the celebration (it being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from Nazi occupation) but also expressed the close bond that exists between Russians and Serbs.
It almost seems paradoxical that a nation with European Union aspirations and EU candidate status, like Serbia, would hold a polarizing figure like Vladimir Putin in such high regard. But in reality it’s not that much of a surprise. The fact is that Serbia and Russia share much in common – as Serbian President Nikolic so clearly noted. Serbs and Russians are not only from the same broad ethnic family, being that of the Slavs, but they also share the same faith, customs and traditions. Historically they have consistently been on the same side with respect to military alliances and also closely aligned in political ideology.
All in all, what does this visit mean for Serbia, a nation obviously torn between East and West? Is it possible for Serbia to be EU minded and Russia friendly? Obviously the present leadership in Belgrade seem to think so. Many have voiced fears that eventual EU membership would automatically lead to membership in the military alliance of NATO thus placing Serbia’s close relationship with Russia in jeopardy. However , that may not necessarily be the case. EU membership does not necessarily mean automatic inclusion into the NATO alliance. Currently only 6 of the 28 European Union member states are not members of NATO and Serbia could potentially add to that number. Nevertheless, this could possibly place Serbia in a difficult position while simultaneously raising concerns in Brussels as to Serbia’s overall commitment to the EU.
On the other end of the spectrum, one could surmise that President Putin has seen this trip as an opportunity to sure up his relations with the Balkan state while expressing solidarity concerning the issue of Kosovo. Indeed the visit does make clear that Belgrade and Moscow have mutual interests economically and politically and have committed themselves to cooperating with each other.
As to how the EU integration process will play out for Serbia given its closeness to Russia and the tensions that presently exists between Russia and the EU is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, Serbia has made its intentions clear regarding its desire to integrate into the EU while pragmatically embracing a relationship with the Russian Federation. As to how long such a policy could be maintained without undue pressure from either partner – being the EU or Russia – is yet to be seen. Only time will tell.
                                                                           Mikhail E.D. Byng


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