Amid a lavish welcome, Russian President Vladimir Putin kicked off a state visit to Serbia, aiming to cement cooperation with a Western Balkan country that seeks to join the European Union.
Putin was welcomed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport on January 17, as many billboards around the Serbian capital featured a mix of Russian and Serbian flags.
'Welcome honored President Putin, dear friend,' read one of them.
Putin's one-day trip -- which will include a visit to the Church of St. Sava, the biggest Orthodox church in Serbia -- comes with the Russian leader continuing to be one of the most popular foreign leaders in Serbia.
The two countries have long shared close economic and Slavic cultural and religious ties, forcing Belgrade to balance its historic ties to Moscow with its desire to join Western organizations such as the EU.
Serbia has rejected calls to join Western economic sanctions against Moscow while Russia supports Belgrade by refusing to recognize the former Serbian province of Kosovo as an independent state.
Russia has also worked to maintain strong military ties with Belgrade by supplying it with hardware and holding joint maneuvers with Serbian forces.
However, most Serbs believe that the EU offers a better model for their future than Russia, according to London School of Economics professor James Ker-Lindsay.
On the eve of his trip, Putin criticized the United States and other Western countries, asserting that their policies were 'aimed at fostering their dominance in the region,' which he said is 'a major destabilizing factor.'
SEE ALSO: Serbian Officials Tuning Up For Putin's Visit To Belgrade
In an interview with Serbian pro-government newspapers published on January 16, Putin argued that Montenegro joining NATO in 2017, without holding 'a relevant referendum, has led to 'political instability' in the Balkan country.
But Montenegro's accession to NATO has put added pressure on Moscow to maintain tight relations with Belgrade, its last foothold in the Balkans. So has Macedonias success toward ending a dispute with Greece that will open the doors to Macedonia's membership in the EU and NATO.
Like Montenegro, Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia until the country disintegrated amid the wars of the early 1990s.
Russia 'has always viewed [the Balkans] as a space for constructive cooperationand the strategic partner Serbia holds a special place, Putin said.
In a show of the Kremlin's aim to curry favor with Serbia, Putin last week awarded Vucic with the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky, a prize that is usually bestowed upon civil servants for at least 20 years of 'highly meritorious service' and is rarely given to foreigners.
The award, which Vucic is likely to receive during the visit, underlines Putin's popularity among the majority of Serbs. A recent survey by Faktor Plus showed 57 percent naming the Russian leader as the most-trusted foreign politician.
'Vucic is the first Serb to receive this high award in our time, which in itself speaks volumes,' said Aleksandr Chepurin, Russia's ambassador to Serbia.
'Protecting the interests of our countries, Russia and Serbia, instead of satisfying the interests of the West -- that's basically the philosophy of both the Russian and Serbian leadership,' he told Serbias state news agency Tanjug on January 2.
Chepurin said the tense situation in Kosovo between the ethnic Serb minority and Kosovar Albanians would be high on the Putin-Vucic meeting agenda.
Also under discussion will be strengthening bilateral relations and cooperation in economic spheres such as energy, trade, innovation, technological development, and the digital economy, he said.
The delegation of ministers and other officials joining Putin in Belgrade includes Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Gazprom head Aleksei Miller.
The Kremlin press service said Russian and Serbian officials will also discuss a possible extension of the Turk Stream natural gas pipeline into Serbia. The pipeline currently runs under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and then into Greece.
Some analysts say the close relations with Russia are not all as promising as they often appear.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said last month that Serbia's foreign policy priority remains joining the EU, and that 'we can be even more efficient in the reforms that we conduct, primarily because of our citizens.'
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and TASS RFE/RL
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