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'Serbia is on the European path, but will continue to build best relations with Russia'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed Serbia's drive to join the EU | Youtube snapshot

During a visit to Belgrade, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed Serbia's drive to join the European Union, but also vowed that Moscow would remain engaged with the Balkan country no matter what happens.

Lavrov arrived in the Serbian capital on February 21 for a two-day visit aimed at bolstering long-standing ties with Serbia.

"We always wanted partners to have a free choice and develop their political ties," Lavrov said at a news conference with President Aleksandar Vucic, who is leading Serbia through a delicate balancing act.

The country is seeking to join the EU but at the same time attempting to preserve its traditional strong ties with Russia, which shares its Orthodox Christian heritage and has supported Belgrade in numerous disputes with the West.

Vucic said that "Serbia is on the European path, but will continue to build best relations with Russia."

"I presume there will be different wishes and pressure for those relations to go in the opposite direction, but Serbia will stay on the same line," he added.

During a trip to Slovenia earlier in the day, Lavrov sharply criticized the West and the EU in particular for failing to maintain good relations with Moscow and for attempting to draw countries in the Balkans away from Russia.

"I think it's absolutely detrimental to push a false choice on any country, which suggests that well, you go either West or East," he said.

"Regrettably, some of our counterparts in the West proceed from precisely this logic when they communicate with countries in the Western Balkans, and not only there."

While EU leaders have laid down tough conditions for joining the bloc -- particularly on establishing the rule of law, guaranteeing fundamental rights, and settling regional territorial disputes -- they say they have not pushed anti-Russian policies as a condition of membership.

Vucic reassured Lavrov that despite its EU ambitions, Serbia would never impose financial sanctions on Moscow, as the United States and EU have done after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"I want to be clear, Serbia will never impose sanctions against the Russian Federation," Vucic said.

Lavrov said that "neither Russia nor Serbia are imposing anything on each other."

"Serbia is determined to keep its neutral status, which is a factor of stability in the Balkans," the Russian foreign minister added.

Belgrade's neutral military policy has not been openly opposed by U.S. or European leaders.

Western countries have raised questions, however, about Serbia's establishment of a joint Russian-Serbian humanitarian center in the southern city of Nis, which Western officials suspect may be used by Russia to harbor spies and disseminate propaganda in the Balkans.

Lavrov was also set to meet with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic during his Belgrade visit, which coincides with the 180th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Russia and Serbia.