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'

Serbia's drift toward Russia continued ahead of the country's presidential election with the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been made an honorary citizen of its second-largest city.

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.

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.

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.

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