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Belgrade moves World War Two Liberation Ceremony for Putin

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and former Prime Minister of Russia, is attending press conference during his visit in Belgrade, March 23, 2011.

Belgrade is preparing an ambitious ten-day celebration of its World War II Liberation Day, and is faced with numerous controversies that run the gamut from why it is spending money on this at a time of economic crisis, why it invited Russian President Vladimir Putin, and why it has changed the celebration date to accommodate Putin’s schedule.

There also are questions about why the government is staging a military parade, the first in decades; why spend so much at a time of economic crisis; why accommodate the Russian leader at a time of the Ukrainian crisis.

But the most complex aspect of the parade and its star guest is Serbia’s political environment in the face of an admonition from the EU, which has sanctioned Russia for its moves against Ukraine. Serbia’s eagerness to accommodate a Russian president who is an obvious problem to the West and the EU does not fall in line with its stated goal to join the EU.

While Putin is scheduled to meet with Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic and its prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic on economic matters and the countries’ relations, most attention is on politics, which include the ceremony and the parade.

The date of the military parade has been set to accommodate the Russian president, rather than the date of liberation. It is to be held Oct. 16 instead of the date of liberation, Oct. 20.

Milovan Drecun, a member of the organizing board of the 70th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation, told RFE this week that the parade will be held then because of Putin’s obligations.

He said the overall celebration will run until the 20th, but the parade was scheduled for the 16th because, “We must consider obligations of our high-ranking guest coming from the Russian Federation.”

That the Russian president is coming at all has complicated Serbia’s political scene. At the beginning of the month, Serbia was warned by the EU that it would have to reevaluate its relations with Russia if it wants to continue on its stated path to joining the European Union. This was the first direct warning that Serbia must reconsider its decision not to support EU sanctions against Russia if it wants to join the EU.

Vucic’s response:

“For the past seven or eight months I keep hearing that we will have to comply with someone’s order within a day, within two days, within three months… Serbia has its stances and Serbia will not change its stances… nobody addresses Serbia in such a manner – ‘Hey, we came to tell you this, and now you have to do that.’ Maybe that is someone’s idea of politics. Show me a person who can, want to and dares to talk to me like that. There is not one.”

On the other hand, he has said,

“We respect everything brought by the EU, but there are different opinions on certain issues within the EU. Five EU countries never acknowledged an independent Kosovo. I apologize, we are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so [why should] we would have to accept them now. This is our policy and we will not change it.”

The angry words and the attempt at conciliation follow the pattern that Vucic has followed in his policy of trying to stay on friendly terms with Russia while trying not to anger the EU. But some say the pressure on him to reevaluate will only increase.

Sonja Liht, chairwoman of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, said Putin’s visit will be carefully analyzed in Brussels but doubts it will significantly influence Serbia’s continuing in the European integration process:

“He is coming to attend celebration of 70th anniversary of liberation of Belgrade. Since only Russia, no matter what we think, cherishes the heritage of the Red Army, I think that from a historical point of view nobody can question that visit. Of course, it is happening in a very complex political time, which is why it is certainly going to be thoroughly analyzed [by the UN]. Still, I do not think that the visit of President Putin can seriously disturb Serbia’s European path. Whether the country will have to reconsider its stance towards Russia will depend on relations between Europe and Russia,”

Foreign policy analyst Bosko Jaksic, though, said he thought that the time is running out for Serbia and that the message of warning from the EU Commissioner designate Johannes Hahn was directly related to Putin’s visit.

“The Europeans are expecting or evaluating that Russian pressure on Serbia will increase, he said. “I think that Putin’s visit is a crown of those pressures, which can be detected in the past several weeks, and that is why they [EU] stressed their demands in such an explicit manner. We can see there is nothing new in the prime minister’s statement, but I think that increase of pressure shortens our time, which was to be expected.”

On another issue, why Putin was the only head of a state invited when many other countries had a hand in the liberation, Milovan Drecun, a member of the organizing board or the celebration, told RFE that Putin’s country’ army is the legal successor to the Red Army, He said that veterans of other countries that constituted the Ukrainian Front would attend. He added, “It would be too complicated to ensure all the presidents are here.”

Flags of Yugoslavian partisans and the Red Army units that participated in liberation of Belgrade will be carried at the parade, but there will be no Chetnik flags but the nationalist Chetniks, who were a spinoff from the royal Serbian army and fought against the eventual victors, , will be represented, said Draza Petrovic, columnist for “Danas” magazine. He said, “It seems that the only Chetnik insignia will be … Nikolic,” who is a Chetnik Duke.

He added that Putin is “an idol to Chetnik Serbs at the moment: Putin, who is fighting in Ukraine and challenging different western forces.”

Historian Olga Manojlovic Pintar said she was not surprised by the fact that flags of Yugoslavian and Russian partisans will be greeted by a Chetnik Duke, or that messages of peace will be sent by people who initiated wars in 1990s. She said, “History is often a comedian, and we can see it in this case. A man who spent his whole life clearly promoting one system of values now finds himself in a situation because of his political function to promote a completely different system of values.”

Asked by RFE if she thought the parade was so ambitious and with such a high ranking guest only to show the anti-fascist position of Serbia, or if she saw any other message, she answered that “…every celebration tells more about the time in which it was held, than about what it is marking. On one hand, I think it is very important to stress the anti-fascism and present the People’s Liberation Army as a victor against fascism in the World War II. On the other hand, our political elites are clearly stating they are determined not to establish the same relationship with Putin’s Russia as with the united Europe.

Jaksic said he saw the whole affair this way:

“…I would say that the Russians initiated this visit and that is an offer you cannot refuse. And it helps Russia to reinforce its position. We can see it has lost Montenegro, considering that Montenegro had been one of the centers of Russian interests in Southeast Europe, along with Serbia and the Republic of Srpska. I believe …Russians have become agitated and the Ukrainian crisis dictates that both sides must consolidate their allies.”

He said that any economic dimensions of Putin’s visit, which is what Russian officials say the visit it about, are far less important than the political dimension, which might have far reaching consequences for Serbia.