President Putin has taken part in a ceremony in the Serbian capital Belgrade to mark the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation from the Nazis by the Soviet army and Yugoslav Communist partisans.
He and President Tomislav Nikolić laid wreaths at a cemetery for Russian soldiers who died fighting in World War II.
The visit of the Russian leader is symbolic, reflecting Moscow’s continued influence and reverence in parts of the Balkans, be it through gas supplies or notions of Slav brotherhood rooted in history, shared Orthodox Christianity and common conservative values.
But since the end of the Milosevic era Serbia has gradually turned west, becoming a candidate to join the EU, which has become Serbia’s biggest trade partner, donor and source of investment, outstripping Russia.
Serbia has softened its stance on Kosovo, whose independence it refuses to recognise, in return for the start of EU accession talks, and is seen increasingly by the West as a stabilising factor in the region having exported war for a decade under Milosevic to Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
However, Belgrade has refused to sign up to Western sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s alleged meddling in Ukraine.
Serbia, like much of Eastern Europe, depends on Russia for gas. It also wants to woo Russian orders for its agricultural produce and Russian investors to a host of run-down state enterprises, as well as expand a free trade agreement.
Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline is due to pass through Serbia. Belgrade promised to start construction in July, but has quietly held off due to EU legal objections rooted in the Ukraine crisis.
The commemorations are taking place four days before the actual anniversary of Liberation Day – to accommodate President Putin who is due to attend an EU-Asia summit in Milan.
Last week some 140 Russian Cossacks visited the Balkans for a World War One reconstruction, including several key figures said to have been prominent in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year.