Serbia is committed to European Union membership but it will work hard to improve relations with its traditional ally Russia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told Reuters ahead of a presidential election on Sunday (2 April).
The poll will test the popularity of Vučić, a frontrunner in the race, as well as his center-right Serbian Progressive Party, economic reforms and a bid to bring the country closer to the EU.
“Serbia is on the European path and that is our strategic goal. We want our society to be modelled after most developed Western European countries,” Vučić said at the weekend.
But, he said he would work hard as president to maintain good relations with fellow Christian Orthodox Russia as well.
Powers in Serbia are strictly divided between the president and prime minister. Under the constitution the president signs bills into law, commands the military, presides over the national security council and represents the country abroad, but economic and foreign policy is in the hands of the prime minister.
Serbia, which in the 1990s was seen as the pariah of the Western Balkans for its central role in wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, expects to complete negotiations on EU membership by 2019.
Many Serbs remain skeptical about joining the bloc and view Western European countries as outspoken advocates of the 1999 NATO bombing to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in the former province of Kosovo, in which thousands of civilians had been killed.
“We have to show ordinary people what are we doing together (with the EU),” Vučić once a firebrand nationalist, said. “We have to show concrete roads and concrete projects.”
The West sees the integration of Western Balkan countries as a way to stabilise a region recovering from a decade of wars and economic turmoil.
Russia opposes the integration of Western Balkan countries, including Serbia, into NATO and the EU and is trying to extend its influence in the region.
On Monday (27 March), Vučić traveled to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin for talks on trade and military cooperation.
Last year, Russia donated six MIG-29 fighter jets, and Vučić said he now plans to negotiate a purchase of surface-to-air missiles with Putin.
President Putin also said that he wanted to discuss with Vučić the situation in the region, because, he said, there had been indicators that it was escalating.
Vučić said that Putin “wanted to hear” his thoughts about the events in Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We focused the longest on the region, the overall situation, the external influence on the region,” said Vučić.
He also said he had briefed Putin about Belgrade’s view of the situation in the region, and that Russia’s support was important to Serbia in maintaining territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as economic and social support.
The meeting with the Russian president took place two weeks after Vučić’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, during which the intention of developing relations and continuing Serbia’s European integration was also reaffirmed.
In Berlin, Vučić was praised for the reforms he was implementing en route to the EU.
On Sunday (26 March), ahead of the meeting with Putin, Vučić reiterated that Serbia’s strategic determination was to join the EU, but that it would not impose sanctions on Russia.
The Serbian prime minister said the following day that he had conveyed to Putin that “Serbia stands firmly on the model of military neutrality.” Putin, in Vučić’s words, “fully supported that”.
Serbia cooperates with NATO within the Partnership for Peace program. But it takes part in joint exercises with Russia, and justifies the procurement of military equipment as part of its neutrality stance, in order to improve its defence capacities.
The Serbian prime minister said on Monday that Putin had approved everything that had been discussed, and that he expected the Russian president to sign a decree very soon.
“We are also discussing economic cooperation with Russia, we would like to attract more investors,” Vučić said, adding that investors could profit on trade deals with EU member states.
Vučić said his country is also looking to build economic cooperation with China. He said he expected a Chinese private company to start flights between Beijing and Belgrade.