For Kosovo’s Serbs, the emotional bond with Russia has strengthened since Moscow said ‘not’ to idea of independence for the Serbian province.
They reverently held aloft pictures of Vladimir Putin at the inauguration in Mitrovica of a statue honouring a hero of Serb folklore.
It remembers Russian Consul Grigorij Stevanovic Scerbin who was assassinated in the city in 1884 by Albanians. History, culture and religion bring Russians and Serbs together.
It is not the first time Russia has played the friendship card. In June 1999 Russian troops rolling into Pristina were welcomed by cheering Kosovan Serbs. They were the first foreign forces to enter the city as the NATO campaign to drive out what was then the Yugoslav army reached its climax.
Much to the embarassment of the West the Russians seized control of the airport. It threw NATO’s game plan into confusion and put Moscow in a strong position to negotiate its role in the coming UN peacekeeping mission.
The Kremlin celebrated an operation that was interpreted as reclaiming its right to have a say in the region.
Eight years on and its influence has not diminished. In fact, some analysts say under President Putin Russia’s attitude has hardened, especially during his second mandate.
For Moscow, observers believe, an independent Kosovo would not be a one-off exception, as the West maintains, but would set a precedent. It would be an outcome that could have significant implications on other situations. It is argued that in certain regions in the Caucusus Moscow supports the aims of some separatist movements while opposing others and that future Russian policy could be shaped by what eventually becomes of Kosovo.
Whatever happens, for Serbs in the province, Putin is the last line of defence against independence.