Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for stability in the Balkans during a pageantry-filled visit to Serbia, a key Moscow ally. After arriving to a rousing red-carpet welcome in Belgrade, Putin said he would back efforts to maintain calm in the region, a day after accusing the West of destabilising the Balkans through efforts to boost NATO membership. "Russia, like Serbia, is interested in the situation in the Balkans remaining stable and not dangerous," Putin told reporters at a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Although Serbia and all of its neighbours aspire to join the European Union, Belgrade has maintained close ties with Russia, its historical "Orthodox big brother" whose people also share Slavic origins. The affection for Moscow is fanned by its unyielding support on the emotive issue of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that broke away in a 1998-99 guerilla war. Serbia has never accepted the split and Russia similarly rejects it, wielding its veto power at the United Nations to thwart Kosovo's dreams of joining. Vucic expressed gratitude for Russia's backing on Kosovo and presented Putin with a puppy of the Sarplaninac breed, a shepherd dog from the region, during the visit. Meanwhile, Putin awarded his counterpart with a Russian state honour. The Russian president's visit was celebrated on the streets by tens of thousands of Serbs who marched through the capital in a parade supporting the two leaders. "Welcome honoured President Putin, dear friend," read one of many billboards around the city bearing a mix of Russian and Serbian flags. The parade culminated at the massive Saint Sava church, one of Orthodox Christianity's largest houses of worship, where more than 120,000 people gathered, according to police. Serbian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Irinej welcomed Putin as church bells rang out. Inside the church, whose decoration is partly financed by Russia, the leaders lit candles and symbolically laid pieces of tile in a mosaic. "Thank you for the friendship," Putin told the crowd outside the church in Serbian at the end of his visit. - 'Serbia's salvation' - In return for Moscow's support on the Kosovo issue, Belgrade has refused to join international trade sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Graffiti saying "Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia" can sometimes be spotted on Serbian streets. Putin's stop-over comes as long-running EU-sponsored talks to normalise ties between Serbia and Kosovo have taken a dip, and appear to be going nowhere fast. Speaking during the visit, Vucic said that "Without Russia... it is clear that there will be no solution" over Kosovo. Kosovo's biggest backer is the US. Putin is "Serbia's salvation," said retired general Mitar Petkic, who had camped for hours in front of the Saint Sava church to welcome the Russian leader. "The EU is falling apart, by the time we join it won't exist anymore," the 66-year-old told AFP. But the warm embrace does not mask what Russia considers recent setbacks in the Balkans, where the West has increased its influence. Moscow was unable to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO in 2017, a goal which Macedonia is also moving towards after ratifying a name change deal to end a decades-long dispute with Greece. If Macedonia succeeds, seven countries bordering Serbia -- which does not aspire to join -- will be in the NATO sphere. Only neighbouring Bosnia will also not be a member, due to the veto of its Serb population. - 'Energy, key area' - The relationship between Serbia and Russia is "more an emotional than a rational" one, explained Serbian economic analyst Biljana Stepanovic. According to a 2017 Serbian government survey, a quarter of the population believe Russia and the EU were the country's joint top donors for development aid. In reality, 75 percent of donations came from the EU or its member states, while Russia did not make the top nine. The West also outpaces Russia in terms of direct investment and trade. Moscow does, however, have some stake in the region. Serbia imports two-thirds of its natural gas and crude oil from Russia, while Russian giant Gazprom owns the Serbian oil company NIS. "Energy is the key area of Russia-Serbia cooperation," Putin told reporters. He said Gazprom planned to increase its gas deliveries to the Balkans country by 2020.
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