Vladmir Putin, the Russian president, visited Serbia today, although a storm of controversy has followed him there. This controversy centers around Putin’s stance with Ukraine, as well as the increased tensions between Russia and the West. Feeling that he has already lost many former allies to Russia, with many eastern European countries opting for membership in the European Union (EU) and, in some cases, membership also in NATO, Russia feels itself increasingly isolated. Putin is hoping that a visit to Serbia will pressure the country into maintaining the close relations that still exist between the two countries, at a time when Serbia seems to be stressing developing closer relations to the West.
During a prior visit to Serbia, Putin claimed that the nation had a choice: either grow closer to the European Union (EU) and the West, or have close relations with Russia. However, he suggested, it could not have both. He warned that a free trade agreement that exists between the two countries would be nullified if Serbia became a member of the EU. Putin wants Serbia had to agree to begin building a pipeline that would be largely controlled by Russia, although Serbia has already given indication that it values closer relations to the West more than the pipeline, with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic claiming that thinking of building such a pipeline made no sense without resolving the legality of it first between both Russia and the EU.
The EU has imposed economic sanctions on Putin’s Russia, although it did so with some reluctance. The three biggest members of the EU, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, all relied on Russia fairly heavily. This is even more true for Serbia, which has stated that while it officially opposes Russia’s annexation of Crimea and role in the Ukrainian conflict, it will stop short of imposing sanctions. The country is going through some serious economic woes now, and Serbian officials have maintained that cutting off economic ties would be very bad for the Serbian economy. Much of the country’s energy industry is controlled by Russian owned Gazprom.
While Vladmir Putin is visiting Serbia, he will not shy away from the controversy that will follow him while there, as he has warned that neo-Nazi followers are growing in numbers throughout eastern Europe and the Baltics. He suggested that neo-Nazism has become all too common in places like Latvia as well as the Ukraine, citing the pro-western revolution in Kiev as a particularly disturbing example of this. Putin views the trend by many eastern European nations to foster good relations with the West by distancing themselves from Russia very skeptically, and he viewed similar overtures by pro-Western Ukrainians as a move towards fascism. As a fellow Slavic nation, Putin feels that Serbia is a true ally, one of the last that Russia still has in the region, and Russia wants desperately to hang onto that alliance. But while Serbia is honoring Putin during his visit, it has already given indications that it will continue to pursue closer relations to the West.
Therefore, Putin will visit Serbia, and is expected to receive a hero’s welcome while there, although the trip is also generating controversy. The first military parade in Serbia in thirty years has been planned, but many critics are decidedly uncomfortable with such a grand celebration given to honor a man who many Western officials feel mostly skeptical about. Many western officials believe it is inappropriate for Serbia to provide Putin with a military parade, seeing the Russian leader as largely responsible for the unrest in Ukraine that has lingered for most of this year. Serbia has been trying to establish closer ties to the West, having officially applied for membership in the European Union, and the parade in honor of Putin, many Western officials feel, will not help it achieve that goal. But Russia has long been a traditional ally, a fellow Slavic nation, and so Serbia now finds itself torn between East and West.
By Charles Bordeau
Photo by Republic of Korea – Flickr