Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will start a visit to Serbia on June 18, according to his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic. The visit appeared timed to coincide with the end of the election campaign in the strongly pro-Russian country.
Dacic announced the visit on Sunday during a rally by his Socialist Party in Belgrade. There are no official confirmations yet on either Serbian or Russian ministerial websites, however, and Serbian officials did not respond to questions by BIRN on the visit by the time of publication.
President Aleksandar Vucic met the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, on Sunday. According to the press release, the diplomat invited Vucic to attend the postponed Victory Day parade in honour of World war II in Moscow on June 24. It said the two of them, “expecting the arrival of a high-ranking Russian official in Belgrade soon, discussed bilateral relations between Serbia and Russia, as well as the issue of Kosovo and Metohija”.
Russia is a close ally to Serbia on the issue of the mainly ethnic Albanian former province that declared independence with Western backing in 2008.
Lavrov’s visit was previously planned for March 24, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which forced Serbia to relinquish control of Kosovo.
It was cancelled due to the situation with COVID-19. Serbian news agency Tanjug reported that the visit was due to include a ceremonial handover of a page of Miroslav’s Gospel, which is kept in St Petersburg. The 12th-century manuscript is the oldest preserved illustrated Serbian Cyrillic manuscript.
Dacic has now announced that Lavrov will be in Serbia on June 18 and 19. Parliamentary elections in Serbia are due on June 21.
Aleksandar Popov, from the Centre for Regionalism think tank said the timing of the visit was no surprise. “Of course, it is no coincidence, if there had been time, the ruling [coalition] and the head of state [Vucic] would probably have supplied [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, to give [them] additional support. Some other date could have been chosen, and not just before the elections,” Popov told BIRN.
According to him, the visit will appeal to nationalist voters of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, which Vucic leads, and to many other pro-Russian people in Serbia.
“This is certainly wind in the sails of all those who are right-wing, pro-Russian and against any agreement on Kosovo … It is a fairly transparent game, at the end of which is the election campaign,” Popov added.
High-profile visits and meetings with Russian representatives around election time are not new in Serbia. On March 27, 2017, only days before the presidential elections, Vucic, then Serbian prime minister and a presidential candidate, met Putin in Moscow, where the Russian President wished him success in the presidential election.
“We are certain the election will be held according to highest standards. We wish the current government success,” Putin said at the start of the meeting.
A year earlier, in May 2016, after snap parliamentary elections in Serbia, while negotiations about forming a new government were still ongoing, Vucic went on an unannounced visit to Moscow. According to the official transcript, Putin congratulated Vucic’s Progressives on their victory in the elections.
“I hope that whatever new government’s composition, it will give a worthy place to people who give serious attention to developing relations between the Russian Federation and Serbia,” Putin then told Vucic.
“We consider it our honour and duty to do everything we can to continue developing our relations with the Russian Federation in all areas, in the economy and in the political sphere,” Vucic responded.