Pro-Russia Serbs march in Belgrade as country treads ever finer line between East and West


BELGRADE, March 4 (Reuters) - Thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of President Vladimir Putin marched through Belgrade to the Russian embassy on Friday, in a rare show of public support for Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.

Serbia is performing a delicate balancing act between its European aspirations, partnership with NATO and its centuries-old religious, ethnic and political alliance with Russia. read more

For many ordinary Serbs, the memory of NATO's bombing of strategic targets in Serbia to bring an end to the Balkan wars of the 1990s is still all too fresh, an action that was strongly opposed by Russia at the U.N. Security Council.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, facing an election next month in which he needs to retain the support of Russian-leaning citizens, has in recent days also repeatedly pointed to Moscow's long-time backing in the United Nations where it has refused to recognise the independence of Serbia's former breakaway province of Kosovo.

Some 4,000 people joined the march after gathering in front of a monument of Russian Tsar Nicholas II in central Belgrade, where they played Russian and Serbian anthems and hailed the two countries as brethren nations.

"This is about saving mankind," said an elderly man carrying a Russian flag. "This is a struggle between good and bad, and we know, thank God, that Mother Russia will win."

A younger man wearing a cap with a red star symbol said he came to support Russia in everything it does.

"This is the only right thing to do," he said.

Among the protesters were also local members of Russia's "Night Wolves" motorcycle club, known to have close ties to Putin and with a history of fighting in Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists during the 2014 Crimea crisis and war over the Donbass region.

The political views of many in Serbia are influenced by tabloids close to Vucic, which have echoed Moscow's view of the war in Ukraine, with one carrying the headline 'Ukraine attacked Russia!' on the first day of the invasion.

But there is also support for Ukraine, with dozens protesting Russia's invasion in front of its embassy earlier this week and more events expected over the weekend.

Russia calls its actions a 'special operation' designed not to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

Many protesters carried placards with the letter Z on them - the symbol that has been seen on Russian tanks in Ukraine.

Earlier on Friday, Vucic told Ukraine's ambassador in Serbia that Belgrade respects international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that it stands ready to provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees.

Serbia, which relies on Moscow for its energy needs, also joined the U.N. General Assembly's condemnation of Russia's attack but has declined to introduce sanctions against Moscow.

Vucic has said the country is coming under intense pressure to harmonise its foreign policy with that of the European Union, which it aims to join. read more

The country's flag carrier Air Serbia continues to fly between Belgrade and Moscow, even adding capacity as the EU and Russia issued tit-for-tat airspace bans.

Writing by Kirsten Donovan and Daria Sito-Sucic, Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Alistair Bell

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