After arriving to a rousing red-carpet welcome in Belgrade on Thursday, Putin said he would back efforts to maintain calm in the region, a day after accusing the West of destabilising the Balkans through efforts to boost NATO membership.
“Russia, like Serbia, is interested in the situation in the Balkans remaining stable and not dangerous,” Putin told reporters at a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Although Serbia and all of its neighbours aspire to join the European Union, Belgrade has maintained close ties with Russia, its historical “Orthodox big brother” whose people also share Slavic origins.
The affection for Moscow is fanned by its unyielding support on the emotive issue of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008.
Serbia has never accepted the split and Russia similarly rejects it, wielding its veto power at the United Nations to thwart Kosovo’s dreams of joining.
In return for Moscow’s support on the Kosovo issue, Belgrade has refused to join international trade sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and has pledged to stay out of NATO.
Graffiti reading “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia” can sometimes be spotted on streets in Serbia.
Relations were further boosted recently after Putin stepped up efforts to restore Moscow’s influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.
Al Jazeera’s Jelena Glusac, reporting from Belgrade, said that Thursday’s visit is the third meeting between the two presidents in a year.
“Serbia and Russia are long-standing allies. Putin said that Russia has many friends in the Balkans, but Serbia is Russia’s strategic partner,” said Glusac.
“He said Russia respects the decision of Serbian authorities about the European future of Serbia and as he said, unlike Western partners, Russia doesn’t try to put Serbia in front of an artificial choice – Russia or European Union.”
Al Jazeera’s correspondent added that Putin said he was surprised by the EU’s “passive” reaction when Kosovo announced in December it was transforming its 4,000-strong Kosovo Security Force into a regular army, especially since Serbs in Kosovo view it as a direct threat to their security.
The Russian president’s visit was celebrated on the streets by tens of thousands of Serbs who marched through the capital.
The parade culminated at the massive St Sava church, one of Orthodox Christianity’s largest houses of worship, where more than 120,000 people gathered, according to police.
Putin’s visit also comes as thousands held weekly demonstrations against Vucic because of what they see as his autocratic rule.
Vucic’s critics say the gathering at St Sava was staged to suggest that the Serbian leader has many more supporters than opponents, who have been marching the same route since December to demand free elections and media.
Several liberal Serbian rights groups issued a statement on Thursday protesting the “glorification of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime”.
It said that Putin’s visit “indicates that the Serbian rulers are ready to sacrifice human rights and better living standards of citizens because of their patronising stands toward Putin’s regime”.
Ahead of his Belgrade visit, Putin accused the United States and the West of pressuring Balkan countries to join NATO.
Putin told two Serbian pro-government newspapers: “The policy of the United States and certain Western countries aimed at fostering their dominance in the region constitutes a major destabilising factor.”
Russia’s interest in Serbia is tied to its strategic position between East and West.
Of Serbia’s eight neighbours, five are NATO members and two more are seeking membership; four are in the EU and two more are working towards accession. Serbia remains Moscow’s only ally in the region.
Unlike NATO, Putin formally does not oppose Serbia’s EU path and analysts believe that this is because he wants a staunch ally – or perhaps a Trojan horse – within the 28-nation bloc.
Putin’s stopover comes as long-running EU-sponsored talks to normalise ties between Serbia and Kosovo have taken a dip, and appear to be going nowhere fast.
Speaking during the visit, Vucic said that “Without Russia… it is clear that there will be no solution” over Kosovo.