Serbian foreign minister rejects U.S. call to choose between Russia and the West

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia wants to maintain its delicate balancing act between Russia and the West, its foreign minister said on Thursday, dismissing U.S. calls for it to pick a side.

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The largest of the states to emerge from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Orthodox Christian and Slavic Serbia has natural affinity with Moscow, but it is keen to join the European Union.

This month, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee told Belgrade it “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time”. His remarks sparked sharp criticism in the Serbian capital.

Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, who heads the co-ruling Socialists, once led by late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, said Belgrade would maintain balance with the West, Russia and China.

“What we do not want is that someone pulls our own chair from under us ... what is important is to see what is in our own best interest,” Dacic told Reuters in an interview.

Although the EU is Serbia’s single largest trade partner and investor, Russia controls its oil and gas supplies. Moscow has also sought to bolster military ties with Belgrade with the donation of six MiG-29 fighter jets.

At Serbia’s request, Moscow blocked independent Kosovo from becoming a member of the United Nations.

The ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following a bloody 1998-1999 war. It has been recognized by 115 countries including the United States and most EU members, but not Serbia or Russia.

Dacic likened Serbia’s opposition to Kosovan independence to Spain’s rejection of Catalonia’s referendum on secession.

“If Spain can fight for its concept of Catalonia then we Serbs can fight for our country,” he said.

Serbia, which cherishes Kosovo as its historic birthplace, and the government in Pristina should seek “a win-win solution” and “an international conference” that would prevent future wars “for a century,” Dacic said.

Earlier this year he suggested autonomy and delimitation for Serb areas in Kosovo.

“That would be the only possible, realistic and lasting ... solution of the problem,” he said in the interview.

There are around 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo and most of them, mainly in the north, just outside Serbia, oppose the Pristina authorities.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy