Serbia seeks stronger ties with Russia in balancing act with EU

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (R) welcomes Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade, Serbia, December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia wants closer military cooperation with Russia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said during a visit to Moscow, where he also stressed Belgrade’s neutrality in an attempt to balance a historic relationship with a push to join the European Union.

Serbia’s armed forces have an almost 80 percent reliance on Soviet technology, a legacy from the Yugoslav People’s Army, and it plans to buy equipment from both Russia and the EU to bolster its airforce, depleted by the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

“Vucic stressed that Serbia’s position as a neutral country will not change, and expressed hope that the political, economic and military cooperation between the two countries will be improved,” the Serbian government said in a statement.

Vucic said Belgrade would spend between 180 and 230 million euros ($188 to $240 million) modernizing six MIG-29 fighter jets, given by Russia, which he said would have cost 600 million more on the market, according to the statement.

Belgrade has also said it plans to buy an nine aircraft from Airbus Helicopters.

During a meeting with Vucic, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed trilateral tactical exercises with Belarus, to be dubbed “Slavic brotherhood”, the government statement said.

It said Russia was also ready to intensify its cooperation with Serbia in military training.

Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Louise Ireland