BELGRADE (Reuters) - Russia’s elite aerobatic team zoomed over Serbia’s military airport on Friday as Belgrade exhibited its newest fighter jets in a display demonstrating close ties between the fellow Slavic, Orthodox Christian countries.
Serbia has sought to balance ambitions to join the European Union with continued warm relations to Russia, which backed Belgrade’s ultimately failed effort to prevent its ex-province of Kosovo from seceding and declaring independence.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attended Friday’s air show, staged to commemorate the liberation of Belgrade from Nazi Germany by the Soviet Red Army and Yugoslav Communist partisans in 1944.
Five of six MiG-29s donated to Serbia by Russia in 2016 - Serbia now has 10 MiGs in all, dating to 1987 - were painted in new grey camouflage and parked on the runway of Batajnica military base just outside Belgrade for the occasion.
“Dear Mr Shoigu, thank you for these wonderful presents, thanks to the people of Russia and President (Vladimir) Putin,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Shoigu in Russian. “I hope our cooperation will be even better.”
Russia’s aerobatic team, the Swifts, demonstrated their flying skills while Serbian jets and air mobile infantry carried out a mock air security operation and assault on ground targets.
Serbia has joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program but is not pursuing membership of the alliance, which remains deeply unpopular among Serbs because of its 1999 air war to stop then-nationalist President Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign to crush Kosovo’s uprising by killing and expelling ethnic Albanians.
Last year, Belgrade signed a deal with Airbus to buy nine H145M light helicopters with weapon pods to be used by both military and police.
But Serbia, which in 2014 opened accession talks with the EU, remains attached to friendship with Russia, an ally that, for example, blocked independent Kosovo from becoming a member of the United Nations, at Belgrade’s request.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich