As Serbia prepares to throw its biggest military parade for 29 years in Vladimir Putin’s honour, we look at why so many in this country on the EU’s doorstep are in thrall to Russia’s president
Serbia’s biggest military parade for 29 years will welcome Russian president Vladimir Putin to Belgrade today, as the ex-Yugoslav state continues to balance its EU membership ambitions with close ties with Russia.
Military aircraft have been roaring over the city all week, in preparation for the event, which nominally marks the 70th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation from the Nazis and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
The parade is a striking display of militarism for a country which spent much of the 1990s embroiled in wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
What’s going on?
Some 3,500 troops will participate. Vladimir Putin will make a flying visit, jetting in en route a Europe-Asia summit in Milan at which he is expected to engage in tough negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Proshenko over a peace deal and a gas dispute which threatens Europe’s winter energy supply.
Thousands are expected to brave Belgrade’s torrential autumn rain to see the parade around the grey Communist blocks and shiny new offices and malls of New Belgrade. Many wish to give Putin a hero’s welcome.
Stencils of the Russian President’s face have appeared around town – swiftly defaced by his detractors – while posters have referred to him as “Our President”.
One joke on the streets says that the army will parade missiles it failed to fire during the wars of the 1990s for fear that they would merely explode immediately when launched.
Why is Serbia giving Putin such a welcome?
Although authorities stress the parade is a commemoration of Belgrade’s liberation, the scale is certainly closely linked to Putin’s visit. The Russian president is likely to bask in the adulation afforded to him by an EU candidate state before meeting European leaders in Milan.
For many Belgraders, the military parade is a nuisance that the country can ill-afford; citizens complain about the noise from the aircraft and the damage done to roads by military vehicles.
But Belgrade has a close relationship with Moscow. Russia has extended soft loans to the cash-strapped Serbian government. Serbia has been a staunch backer of South Stream, a Gazprom pipeline project that would bring Russian gas to Central Europe via the Balkans, against EU opposition.
Serbia also enjoys privileged trade access to Russia’s market as well as the EU’s, positioning itself as a regional export centre.
Finally, Russia operates a “humanitarian centre” in the strategically-important southern city of Nis that some fear could give it a foothold in the region.
Some critics of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist, say that he is trying to ape Putin’s strongman image and policies; Serbia has recently come under fire for curbs on media freedom.
Serbia and Russia have cultural ties, both being predominantly Orthodox Christian country with a Slavic language.
Furthermore, there is a grudging respect for Putin’s tough stance against the West and his assertion of Russia’s independence.
Many Serbs still regard the West with suspicion. Serbia was bombed by NATO as recently as 1999 – two huge ministry buildings gutted by the bombing still stand in the heart of Belgrade, untouched since they were hit as a reminder of what the majority of Serbs see as a grave injustice.
While Serbia is making real efforts to move towards the EU, there is a widespread feeling that the Union will only accept Serbia reluctantly and conditionally, (membership is not expected until 2020, probably later).
Putin’s alpha-male image is also appealing, in contrast to effete European and American leaders.
Russia has also staunchly supported Belgrade over Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, but the Serbian government still sees as a breakaway state.
By Andrew MacDowall, Belgrade