Serbian artillery battery fired 12 salvos to salute Russian President Vladimir Putin who arrived for a one-day visit to Belgrade on Thursday, widely seen as a popularity booster for both himself and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic.
Russian and Serbian flags were put up throughout the city and tens of thousands are expected to come to greet Putin in front of the Saint Sava church in Belgrade.
Since he came to power in 2012, Vucic has been performing a delicate balancing act between the country’s ambition to join the European Union, its biggest trade partner and historical ties with Russia.
For Putin, analysts say, the visit is a way to show Russia, burdened by international sanctions, can be influential in some parts of Europe.
“I would like to use this opportunity to thank you for Russia’s support for Serbia’s independence and its territorial integrity. We could have always counted on your support and although our country is small in size and the number of residents I think Russia has always had a good ally in Serbia”, Vucic said at the beginning of his meeting with Putin.
The two presidents are due to discuss a series of bilateral economic issues including Serbia’s possible accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, which consists only of ex-Soviet countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Serbia, which gets all of its gas needs from Russia, is also interested in building a connection for the Turk Stream gas pipeline which will be the central topic but no contracts will be signed.
Vucic will also try and get support from Russia for a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, seen as key for both countries to progress towards the EU membership.
During the visit Putin will hand in Vucic Order of Alexander Nevsky, the fifth most important country’s decoration, making him the only state leader outside of the former Soviet Union who received it. Vucic will present Putin a puppy of the Sarplaninac breed, which originates in mountainous regions of the Balkans.
Thousands of people are expected to greet Putin as he later in the day visits the St Sava Temple in central Belgrade, but many in Serbia see his visit as a way for Vucic to boost his popularity which has been shaken by weeks of protests against his rule.