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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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If built, the South Stream pipeline would cement the Kremlin's grip on Europe's gas supplies, prompting fears that Moscow would use its position as Europe's primary energy supplier for political advantage.

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A confidential Serbian government document obtained by Reuters last week showed how concerned Washington was with the deal.

"The US side warned about the political influence Moscow would gain by controlling energy resources in Serbia and the region, and expressed a negative assessment about the economic justification of South Stream," said the minutes of a meeting between top US and Serbian officials in Belgrade.

Analysts express little doubt that Serbia faces an important choice this weekend. "There has always been a strong difference of opinion within Serbia over the direction the country should take," says James Lyon of the International Crisis Group. "The spectrum of anti-Western political parties who look toward the east are in the ascendancy at the moment. Putin's honorary citizenship is obviously connected to the election campaign. He has no connection with Novi Sad. It's just electioneering."

Serbia's relations with Russia have strengthened in recent months due to Moscow's opposition to Kosovo's bid for independence. Russia has refused to back any resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would make the breakaway province able to declare independence within the UN framework, and Putin said last week that "Russia is categorically against a unilateral declaration of independence" by Kosovo.

In Serbia, where Kosovo is considered the cradle of Serbian civilization, this has translated into a major boost for the pro-Russian political parties, including Nikolic's Radicals. Many Serbs are now looking to Russia rather than Europe for their future.

The concern in European capitals over Serbia's recent trajectory became clear on Monday, when EU foreign ministers hastily agreed upon a package for Serbia that would set up regular political ties, open up trade, and end visa restrictions.

But they fell short of offering Serbia the opportunity to sign a key premembership accord because of Belgrade's failure to hand over war-crimes suspects to The Hague.

"This offer sends a very strong signal to the Serbian people on their European future which is real and tangible," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.