Vladimir Putin moves to strengthen ties with Serbia at military parade

Russian president pledges never to recognise Kosovo’s independence during visit en route to ASEM summit in Milan

Vladimir Putin set the seal on Russia’s closest alliance in central Europe on Thursday exchanging vows of support with Serbia and attending a military parade in Belgrade on a scale that has not been seen in the region since the Cold War.

The Russian president vowed never to recognise Kosovo’s independence, a priority for Serbia which refuses to accept the loss of the former province after a war in the late 1990s. In return, his Serbian counterpart, Tomislav Nikolić, pledged not to bow to European Union pressure to take part in sanctions against Russia, over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

“Europe can count on it that we will not impose sanctions and that’s that,” Nikolic said at the Palace of Serbia, a huge socialist-era building on the banks of the River Sava. “Serbia will not endanger its morality by any hostility towards Russia.”

The reaffirmation of Russian-Serbian ties, at an event to celebrate the alliance in two world wars, was a boost for Putin on his way to the ASEM summit of European and Asian leaders in Milan, where he can expect a frosty reception from western and Ukrainian leaders. The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said she would raise the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, allegedly by Russian separatists in Ukraine, in which 298 people were killed, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.

After arriving in Milan from Belgrade, Putin was due to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who said she would press him on observance of a September ceasefire agreement which remains tenuous.

“It is above all Russia’s task to say clearly that the Minsk plan is really respected,” Merkel said as she arrived for the summit. “Unfortunately, there are still very, very big shortcomings. But it is important to seek dialogue here.”

On Friday, Putin will meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko to attempt to strengthen the truce and also come to a deal over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine.

Much of the Russian gas supplied to the EU passes through pipelines crossing Ukraine, and Putin warned that Russia would cut supplies intended for Europe if Ukraine siphons off gas intended for Europe, as it did in 2008. “Russia always has been a reliable supplier. But there are big transit risks,” he said in Belgrade.

Putin enjoyed a brief respite from those pressures while in the Serbian capital for a military march-past commemorating the centenary of the first world war and the 70th year since the Soviet army and Yugoslav partisans liberated Belgrade. An enthusiastic crowd, estimated by the Serbian government as 100,000-strong, lined the parade route and chanted “Putin, Putin”, and “Serbia-Russia, we don’t need the [European] Union”.

Nikolic awarded him a large medal and chain of precious metals, named the Order of the Republic of Serbia, the country’s new highest honour, having been specially created for the occasion.

The march-past involved 300 military vehicles, including scores of tanks, as well as anti-aircraft missiles on trailers, and over 3000 troops marching in high-stepping unison under a sudden torrential downpour. At the same time, Serbian and Russian jet fighters roared overhead and paratroopers dropped from the sky. It was the biggest military parade in Serbia and the Balkan region since 1985, when it was the Yugoslav army marching past the country’s communist leaders.

Big screens over the crowd showed footage of the country military’s past, including the recapture of Belgrade, with Red Army help, from the Nazis in October 1944. The screens also showed military parades of the socialist era watched by the white-gloved, blue-uniformed Yugoslav dictator Tito.

What was missing from the visual history was Serbia’s role in the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s, all of which the country lost under Tito’s successor, Slobodan Milosevic. However, there were reminders that the territorial and ethnic issues fuelling those wars have not been resolved. The Russian and Serbian leaders made Kosovo a constant theme, and the Serb separatist leader in Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, fresh from a narrow election win, was given pride of place in the front row of the viewing platform, close to Putin. It was a clear show of support for Dodik who has vowed to weaken the Bosnian state and lead the country’s Serbs to independence.


Julian Borger in Belgrade

The GuardianTramp

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