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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Jan. 17, in Serbia. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a high-profile visit Thursday to Serbia, Moscow's closest ally in the Balkans. Serbia's leadership has long touted cooperation with Russia, but the alliance has frayed as Belgrade has come to see it as the main obstacle on the way to EU membership.

Why it matters: The EU insists that Serbia must peacefully resolve its longstanding differences with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, before it can join. Serbia has indicated that it’s ready to do so in exchange for an accession deal, but Russia, eager to keep Serbia from joining the EU, is trying to leverage strongly pro-Russian popular sentiment to gum up, and perhaps ruin, the fledgling compromise.

Background: Since 2008, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence has been a major source of irritation for the Serbian public and ruling elite. Humiliated, Serbia turned to Russia for partnership and, crucially, for a source of leverage in relations with the West.

  • Over the years, Serbia’s leadership has exaggerated the extent of its cooperation with Moscow and portrayed Russia as the main protector of Serbia’s interests. 20 years after the Balkan war, opposition to NATO and the EU runs fairly deep in the country, but its economic future and well-being clearly lie not with Moscow, but with the EU, where the bulk of its imports, investment and financial assistance come from.

Now that reality has become apparent. For political and economic reasons, Serbia has a serious shot at joining the EU, but is concerned about proceeding without Moscow’s approval. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also understandably fears that being softer on Kosovo than the Kremlin is tantamount to political suicide.

For its part, the Kremlin thinks that any final settlement of the Kosovo dispute would deal a major blow to Russia’s stature as a great power and to its clout in the Balkans. Moscow has repeatedly taken a hard line on Kosovo, forcing Serbia to take similarly uncompromising positions and thereby jeopardize its EU membership.

What's next: During his meeting with Putin, Vucic apparently failed to get his blessing for a possible Kosovo deal. Now he faces a tough choice: risk his political career by pursuing a Kosovo compromise without Moscow’s approval, or appease a paternalistic ally that won’t provide the same commercial opportunities and development assistance that the EU can.

Maxim Samorukov is deputy editor of Carnegie.ru at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Moscow Center.

Go deeper

46 mins ago - World

Brazil senators vote to recommend criminal charges for Bolsonaro

Brazilian senators vote on probe into President Bolsonaro's handling of pandemic. Photo: Gustavo Minas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Brazilian Senate committee Tuesday voted to approve a report recommending President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with a raft of criminal indictments, including crimes against humanity over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, per AP.

Why it matters: Bolsonaro has become the face of a right-wing approach to the pandemic that includes repudiating vaccines and masks and resisting lockdowns and other mitigation measures. The Senate report holds him personally responsible for half of the country's 600,000 deaths.

Former Georgetown tennis coach pleads guilty to accepting admissions bribes

Gordon Ernst (left) former head tennis coach at Georgetown, outside a courthouse in Boston in 2019. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A former Georgetown University head tennis coach has pleaded guilty Tuesday to bribery charges related to facilitating the admission of prospective applicants.

Why it matters: Gordon Ernst solicited and accepted bribes from William Singer, ringleader of the cheating scheme uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues, and families in exchange for helping prospective applicants get into Georgetown as student athletes, according to the Justice Department.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC says some immunocompromised people can get fourth COVID shot

Photo: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in updated guidelines Tuesday that some immunocompromised people who have received either Pfizer or Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines will be able to get a fourth shot.

Details: People over 18 who are "moderately to severely immunocompromised" and have received three doses of an mRNA vaccine may get a fourth shot (of either the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines) at least six months after getting their third Pfizer or Moderna dose, per the CDC.