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EU,Russia Vie for Influence in Balkans 02/24 10:43

   BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in 
Southeast Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on 
a hostile continent.

   The European Union finally is pushing back. European Commission President 
Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a seven-nation Balkans tour Sunday to 
promote the EU's new eastward expansion strategy.

   Russia mainly wants to discourage the Western Balkan countries --- Albania, 
Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia --- from joining NATO. But 
Moscow also is trying to deter them from joining the EU.

   The EU sees the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the 
volatile Balkans region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s. Its 
expansion strategy puts Serbia and Montenegro in position to join should the 
bloc open its doors to more members, tentatively by 2025.

   Serbia is a major target of Moscow's anti-Western activities in Europe 
because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations 
share deep cultural and historical ties. Their bonds also have experienced lows 
and highs, especially since the former Yugoslavia refused to join the Soviet 
bloc in 1948.

   The Kremlin is so concerned about losing its ally that Russian Foreign 
Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly argued while in Serbia last week that EU 
membership isn't all it's cut out to be.

   Lavrov also gave a warning; the EU's repeated calls for Serbia to align its 
foreign policies with the bloc as a precursor to membership and to impose 
sanctions on Russia, he said, are the same "mistake" the West made by 
pressuring war-torn Ukraine to choose between it and Russia.

   Lavrov told Russia's Rossiya 1 TV on Saturday that both Serbia and Russia 
are "the object of the West's overt pressure" to turn Serbia against Russia.

   "We love our countries, and the Serbs love Russia, and the Russians love 
Serbia," he said.

   Serbian political analyst Bosko Jaksic thinks the "Russians are getting 
increasingly nervous as they lose allies one by one in the Balkans."

   "It's not clear how far they are willing to go to preserve their interests 
here, but judging from what they did in Ukraine, they are willing to go far," 
Jaksic said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for 
pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

   Lavrov also said that "Europe is facing an unhealthy situation" because of 
NATO's eastward expansion. Montenegro joined the Western military organization 
last year despite Moscow's strong opposition. He praised Belgrade for 
maintaining military neutrality and refusing to join NATO.

   "We are convinced that this status is one of the main factors ensuring 
stability in the Balkans and the European continent in general," Lavrov said.

   There have been mounting fears in the West that Russia is using Serbia to 
foment tensions in the Balkans by arming its ally with warplanes and tanks 
while working to destabilize neighboring Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

   The European Union's foreign and security policies grew out of Europe's 
failure to respond to the wars in the Balkans that accompanied the breakup of 
Yugoslavia. The bloc remains wary that some of the ethnic cleavages that 
sparked the conflicts of the 1990s persist.

   Three countries have become EU members: Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and 
Croatia in 2013. The rest either are candidates for membership of potential 

   Although Serbia formally has declared its interest in joining the EU, the 
right-leaning leadership now running the country repeatedly has expressed 
anti-Western sentiments.

   "Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means 
investing in the security and future of our Union," Juncker said ahead of the 

   Juncker's tour of the Balkans, which starts in Macedonia on Sunday and ends 
with an EU summit in Bulgaria on March 1, is seen as the EU's belated attempt 
to counter Russia's reach.

   "Paradoxically, the Russians and their policies in the Balkans have 
triggered alarm bells that woke up the European Union into action," Jaksic, the 
analyst, said.


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