Ahead of Serbian vote, the pull of Russia is felt
Political motives lay behind the decision of Serbia's second-largest city to declare Vladimir Putin an 'honorary citizen'
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The criteria for becoming an honorary citizen of Novi Sad states that the nominee must have deep personal ties to the city and must have significantly contributed to its development. But Mr. Putin has not visited Novi Sad while in office – nor has he made any special contribution to the city. Analysts say that the honor – which has also been given by a number of other Serbian towns – was bestowed in an attempt to boost the prospects of the pro-Russian presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic ahead of this weekend's election.
The hard-line nationalist won the first round of voting by a narrow margin and will face the moderate incumbent, Boris Tadic, in a second round on Sunday. The vote is being billed as a referendum on Serbia's future.
Novi Sad's local government is led by Mr. Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party, which advocates turning its back on European integration in favor of closer ties with a resurgent Russia. But in the first round of the election, more voters in the city turned out for pro-Western Mr. Tadic. The decision to honor Putin is being seen as a bid by the local government to increase pro-Russian sentiment at a crucial moment.
Mayor Milorad Mircic of the Radical Party said on Friday that "Putin contributed to the improvement of Serbian-Russian relations." He went on to mention a controversial energy deal signed between Moscow and Belgrade last week as part of the reason that Putin received the honorary citizenship. "We should be grateful to Putin for his activities aimed at signing an energy deal between Serbia and Russia," he told the assembly.
The $2.2 billion deal, completed in Moscow on Friday, handed control of Serbia's state-owned energy company NIS to the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
The deal also allows Serbian land to be used for the South Stream gas pipeline, a direct competitor to the US-backed Nabucco pipeline that was planned to relieve Europe's reliance on Russia for energy.