By Maja Zivanovic
After Western criticism of Serbia’s recent arms deals with Russia, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Tuesday that Belgrade will stop buying weapons.
“We have decided today, I have spoken with [Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar] Vulin and [Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces Milan] Mojsilovic, and we will carry on with additional military reforms and make our army faster [in terms of response time],” Vucic told a press conference.
He said that this did not mean that the army had to acquire more weaponry.
“On the contrary, we will even stop buying weapons, but we will develop a complete defence system in a smart way and be stronger than today,” Vucic said.
His statement came after a visit to Serbia by the US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter-Proliferation, Sanctions Enforcement and Regional Affairs, Thomas Zarzecki, on November 11.
Although Zarzecki, who is in charge of US sanctions against those who are engaged in significant transactions with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors, didn’t make any statements, media reported that he was focused on Serbia-Russia military cooperation.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said after the meeting with Zarzecki: “In a word, there will be no sanctions [against Serbia].”
On November 3 meanwhile, Serbia’s ambassador to Moscow, Miroslav Lazanski, said that Belgrade wanted to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, but “it was too expensive for [Serbia]”.
According to the Serbian service of Russian news outlet Sputnik, Lazanski added that Belgrade has already paid Moscow for the Pantsir missile system which is expected to be delivered from Russia by the end of this year or in the first months of 2020.
The US Special Representative to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, expressed concerns on November 1 “about the deployment of Russian military equipment on the territory of Serbia, but also about the possibility that Serbia requires specific Russian systems, which would run the risk of imposing special sanctions on the purchase of Russian military equipment”.
“But we hope that our Serbian partners are aware of this as well and that they will be careful with such transactions,” Palmer told Macedonia’s Alsat Television.
However, two days ahead of Wednesday’s meeting between Vucic and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, four new Mi-35M military helicopters bought from Russia arrived in Serbia, earlier than the expected 2020 delivery date, Sputnik Serbia reported.
Serbian acquisitions of Russian military equipment have proved controversial, with experts criticising Serbian officials for calling the deals ‘donations’, arguing that Serbia would still have to spend large amounts on the modernisation of the equipment.
Serbia’s defence ministry unveiled ten armoured combat vehicles donated from Russia in July, and often underlines in its press releases the delivery of six MiG-29 fighter jets, 30 tanks and 30 combat vehicles, and says that Serbia gets “significant discounts and other benefits” when purchasing arms and military equipment from Russia.