Vladimir Putin arrived in Belgrade, Serbia this week to meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and other high state officials.
Both presidents are expected to sign several agreements, including arms and energy deals that will further strengthen economic, military and strategic ties between the two countries.
Serbia is considered Russia’s strongest ally in the region. With Russian consent, President Vucic is pushing for Serbia’s access to the European Union, while maintaining a policy of non-alignment with NATO – the only country in the region to do so. The two presidents enjoy a close personal relationship and Putin’s popularity in Serbia is high.
Putin’s visit comes at an important time for the region.
Russia has been a staunch supporter in international organizations of Serbia’s rejection of Kosovo’s independence. The EU-mediated dialogue of normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo has stalled, seemingly due to Serbia’s undermining of Kosovo’s statehood, and the latter’s response by raising import tariffs for Serbian goods.
On the other hand, recently US is pushing for a final agreement between the two Balkans states that would end in a mutual recognition, allegedly within 2019.
Another neighboring country of Serbia and Kosovo, Macedonia approved an historical deal with Greece last week with the full support of the US and EU. Putin gave a blow to Macedonia when it changed its name to North Macedonia last week, an act that is expected to open the way for NATO and EU membership. On the occasion, Putin said that the deal was a result of US and other western nations influence on Macedonia and it didn’t have the support of people. Putin considered such influence “a serious destabilizing factor” in the Balkans.
US pressure on a Kosovo-Serbia final agreement is expected to increase once the Macedonia-Greece deal is also approved in the Greek parliament in the following weeks.
Serbia has continuously asked for the format of dialogue with Kosovo to include Russia and China, if US pushes to include itself in it as a main actor. Putin’s visit to Serbia is expected to strengthen this approach, as declarations from both sides have pointed out.
Russia’s interference in the Balkans has also allegedly been more direct in the past years. Russia has been accused of using money and asserting its influence to create an opposition to Macedonia’s name change, in an attempt to block its way towards NATO. Russia was also accused of meddling in an attempted coup d’état in Montenegro in 2016, before the country joined NATO.
Having failed in its two attempts to keep Montenegro and Macedonia as distant as possible from NATO, now Russia is expected to put more efforts on ways to assert direct influence on the Kosovo issue, in order to strengthen and secure a long-lasting geostrategic relationship with Serbia – the only remaining ally in the region to refuse joining NATO.