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Putin visits Serbia to seal Russian influence

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(BELGRADE) - President Vladimir Putin visits Serbia Thursday in a bid to seal Russia's influence over the EU aspirant, which is walking a tightrope between Brussels and its traditional ally Moscow.

Putin, whose ties with the European Union have deteriorated over Ukraine, can still count on a warm welcome in Belgrade which has refused to align with the EU sanctions on Moscow.

"When we decided to negotiate with the European Union (about membership), we did not talk about sanctions against Russia," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a recent interview.

That kind of support is rare in Europe.

"Russia counts on a number of allies throughout the world, but few in Europe are ready to back Putin," Serbian historian Cedomir Antic said.

"However in Serbia the vast majority have a positive opinion about the Russian president," Antic 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. Experts say it is keen to ensure 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 ($21.8 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 was not in line with its rules and threatened to fine member states if they went ahead with construction.

That prompted Bulgaria to halt work on the project but Serbia has said it will wait until Brussels and Moscow come to an agreement.

Russia signed the South Stream accord with Serbia in 2008 and plans to begin construction this year.

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

- Political message -

Under EU law, energy firms are not allowed to own both the fuel and its means of distribution in one bundle.

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 an $800-million loan in 2013 for rebuilding rail infrastructure.

This April, Russia approved another loan of $500 million to help reduce Serbia's record budget deficit.

For Belgrade, Putin's visit is an occasion to send a political message to the West, analyst Miodrag Radojevic said.

Preparing to take over presidency of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2015, Belgrade could try to tout itself as a "conducive place for meetings (between Russia and the West) over issues such as Ukraine," he said.

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 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.


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