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Serbia Turns to Russian for Help Boosting Military Capacity

Dmitry Rogozin (L) and Aleksandar Vucic (R)

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin met in Belgrade and Rogozin has promised to review Serbian requests for weapons to boost its military capacity, the men said at a joint press conference on January 11

Vucic, who has used several forums lately to stress Serbia’s intention of being a good neighbor and of pressing for peace and comity, took a more militaristic stance, saying that Serbia “would not be an easy target for anyone.”

He said of the cooperation with the Russian Federation, “I will only say that we presented our needs to them.” He said representatives of his government presented Serbia’s needs to the Russian delegation, but he didn’t want to speak about the details.At the press conference, Rogozin gave Vucic a model of the S300 missile system and Vucic gave Rogozin an icon.

Asked if the model of the S300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile system meant that Serbia intended to purchase S300s Vucic said: “This is a model, you know. That’s too expensive for us. We do not have the money at the moment."

Rogozin, though, took the opportunity to remember NATO’s bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo-Serbia conflict. He pointed at the S300 model and said: “Speaking about these toys such as this S300, if you had this system in 1999 I wouldn’t see the demolished Serbian General Staff building now. In 1999 nobody would even risk … [aerial attack] if you had such a defense system."

Rogozin said his country wouldconsiderSerbia’s weapons purchase request: "The Russian side will soon review in detail the request of the Ministry of Defense of the Serbian armed forces to strengthen its own security."

Bodo Weber, an analyst at the Berlin Democratization Policy Council, told RFE/RL that he saw this is a continuation of traditional relations between the two countries:

“The meeting between the two countries takes place at a time that Russia is under EU sanctions because of its policy toward Ukraine, while Serbia is aspiring to become an EU member.It also comes against the backdrop of reports that Croatia is seeking long-range weapons from the west. Rogozin referred to this, saying, “The question arises, against whom does the country intend to use systems with the range of 270-300 kilometers, given the fact that this range goes beyond Croatia’s neighboring states?”

Rogozin met with Vucic the day after he visited the Serbian Army Special Brigade in Pancevo and Military Museum in Kalemegdan, and shortly after his talks with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

Speaking to reporters, Vucic spoke defensively about analysts who might air their opinions about Serbian-Russian military cooperation:

“I want to say this in a single sentence without saying anything bad about all those analysts…. Serbia is primarily working on strengthening its own capacities and boosting its own production. This year you will see our own mass production of ‘Nora’ and ‘Lazar’ 2 and 3. They will be used by our military and the money is not from the budget but from our state companies."

Weber, one such analyst, said:

“I think there is more symbolism than substance in this… There are also some practical elements. Serbian weapons are mainly of Russian origin and it’s logical to replace them with Russian weapons. On the other hand, there was progress in Serbia’s cooperation withNATO last year, as well as with the European Union. Therefore, I think that there is still an important relationship with the EU and European integration while the rest is only for the local audience."

At the joint press conference,Vucic insisted that Serbia would not do anything to undermine regional stability:

“Serbia is for peace and full stability in the region and for the best possible relations with all its neighbors. Serbia will never attack anyone, and we only and in every moment want to protect our territory, our country and our people… Peace and stability in the region are the most important. We expect our Russian colleagues to tell us what they think about it. They have to do a serious analysis and see how and in what way we can resolve our problem. "

The EU has not reacted to the further deepening of the Serbian-Russian cooperation on a military level exemplified by Rogozin’s announcement of a possible opening of a Russian helicopter center in Serbia.

Weber saw it this way: "The European Union made it clear in its famous chapter of the accession process, which refers to the common foreign and security policy and they said that they expected gradual harmonization…That also includes the harmonization of the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia. However, the EU did not say when this harmonization should happen. That will, however, be on the agenda at some point."

Weber said that apart from the sanctions, there is no other substantial conflict between Serbia and the EU.

He said: “When it comes to sanctions, it seems that Serbia is going [to join] in the long run. They are hoping that Ukrainian crisis will end at some point. … If the crisis is not over, they will have to join the EU sanctions against Russia.”