MOSCOW (Reuters) - Serbia is on a “long and uncertain” road to joining the European Union but will not give up its claim to Kosovo for the sake of membership, President-elect Tomislav Nikolic told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.
It was Nikolic’s first foreign trip since he was elected president on May 20. The election of the former leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party triggered speculation the country might abandon its pro-Western path steered since the overthrow of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
But aides to Nikolic said the visit to Russia had been planned before his shock election victory and Nikolic said his first official foreign visit after he is inaugurated president would be to Brussels on June 12.
The meeting with Nikolic was also Putin’s first encounter with a foreign leader from outside the former Soviet Union since he returned to Russia’s presidency for a six-year term on May 7.
The pair spoke warmly of ties between their nations, which share mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian culture, animus toward NATO over its 1999 bombing campaign against Milosevic’s government and opposition to the independence of Kosovo.
“We see Serbia as our spiritual brothers,” said Putin, who met Nikolic on the sidelines of a congress of the dominant United Russia party just outside the Kremlin.
Nikolic told Putin that “Serbia is a partner of Russia in the Balkans” and said he would protect the interests of Serbia and Russia. But Nikolic also offered further assurance that he wants Serbia to join the EU.
“Serbia is on the road to the EU. It is a long and uncertain road. We will order our country according to the rules that exist in the EU,” Nikolic told Putin, according to Russian news agency Itar-Tass and Serbia’s Tanjug.
He added that he has “not heard there exists the condition that Serbia should recognise Kosovo. We cannot do that, even if it meant breaking off negotiations at that very moment.”
No mainstream political leader in Serbia has said they would recognise Kosovo in exchange for EU accession, nor has the demand been explicitly made by the bloc.
The West is pushing Belgrade to “normalise relations” with its former southern province, but any explicit demand for recognition would be undermined by the fact that five of the EU’s 27 EU members do not recognise Kosovo as independent.
Putin has sought to increase economic ties with Serbia. He told Nikolic that Russia was “ready” to provide an $800 million infrastructure improvement loan that has long been under negotiation, but did not say when it might be finalised.
The Serbian infrastructure ministry said in December that the sides had entered final negotiations for the loan to overhaul the Balkan country’s dilapidated rail network. It is part of a wider economic pact agreed in 2009.
Additional reporting by Matthew Robinson in Belgrade; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Hemming