EU reminds Serbia of commitments as Putin visits
BRUSSELS - Agence France-Presse
The EU has declared Putin persona non grata for his role in the Ukraine crisis. AP PhotoThe European Union told Belgrade on Tuesday it should prove its credentials as a future member during an upcoming visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia, a historic Moscow ally.
The EU has declared Putin persona non grata for his role in the Ukraine crisis but he can still count on a warm welcome Thursday in Belgrade, which has refused to emulate the tough sanctions imposed on Russia by Brussels.
A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton noted however that Serbia began talks in January on accession to the 28-member bloc, in which it agreed to gradually bring its policies into line with EU norms.
Spokeswoman Maja Kojicancic said the EU "takes note of the planned visit of President Putin to Serbia."
"Serbia, as all candidate countries ... has made a commitment for a convergence (of policies) ... including the positions on restrictive measures," she said, adding that progress is regularly approved.
Brussels accordingly expects that Serbia's "pro-EU direction will also be confirmed during this visit," she said.
The issue could prove a severe test for Belgrade.
"When we decided to negotiate with the European Union, we did not talk about sanctions against Russia," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a recent interview.
In Belgrade, Putin will attend a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the city's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1945.
More than 3,000 soldiers will take part in the military parade, which will also feature a Russian aerobatics display.
Serbia's turn towards the EU came after many years of international isolation as breakaway province Kosovo sought independence, with Russia pointedly backing Belgrade in the dispute.
The EU however brokered a deal to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo last year, as sentiment turned in favour of boosting ties with Europe in hope of developing the economy, although the Kosovo issue continues to rankle.
Analysts say Russia is anxious to ensure that Serbian EU membership does not undercut its interests, a charge Moscow makes repeatedly over Ukraine's bid for closer ties with Brussels.
To back that commitment, Russia made a loan of $800 million (630 million euros) to Serbia in 2013 and another of $500 million earlier this year to help its strained finances.