Serbia to bolster air force with Russian jets and European helicopters: PM

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia plans to bolster its depleted air force in 2017 and purchase aircraft and equipment from both Russia and the European Union, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday.

Serbia is trying to balance its traditional relations with Russia, a Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation, with a push to join the European Union and for closer ties with NATO, though it has no plans to join the Atlantic alliance.

The procurement in Russia would involve six donated MIG-29 fighter jets with about two years of service life, with Serbia financing their overhaul, Vucic told reporters in Belgrade.

He said that the total cost of the deal would be announced ahead of his visit to Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Dimitry Medevedev slated for next week.

“We are planing to bring MIGs here by March and ... then to extend their service life to 14 years,” he said.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had flagged a potential deal during a visit to Belgrade this week.

Serbia’s military, including its air force, has an almost 80 percent reliance on Soviet technology, a legacy from the now-defunct Yugoslav People’s Army.

Wars of the 1990s depleted the air force, and its 1960s MIG-21 fighters are no longer in service. Three of the more sophisticated MIG-29s are also nearing end of service and the country requires newer jets to patrol its air space.

Serbia’s military budget for 2017 is set at 61 billion dinars (494.31 million euros), equating to 1.39 percent of national output.

Media reports of large-scale weapons purchases have followed previous visits to Moscow by both Vucic and President Tomislav Nikolic.

On June 28 Vucic said that Serbia wanted to buy four MIG-29s for about 260 million euros ($272.30 million), but so far only two Russian Mi17 utility helicopters have been purchased for 25 million euros.

Vucic said that Serbia also plans to buy an additional nine aircraft produced by Airbus Helicopters, with another four helicopters being donated.

He did not specify the exact type of helicopters, the time frame for procurement nor the price. Several media reports have indicated that Serbia could opt for the company’s Super Puma H215 helicopter.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by David Goodman