BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Greeted by enthusiastic chants of "Putin! Putin!," Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a military parade Thursday in Slavic ally Serbia, where he held talks on economic issues, including on the South Stream gas pipeline opposed by the European Union.
Waving Russian and Serbian flags and displaying banners "Thank You Russia," tens of thousands came to see the parade in Belgrade, which marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Serbian capital from the Nazi German occupation by the Red Army and Communist Yugoslav Partisans.
Putin's visit came as Serbia finds itself caught in the middle of Moscow's dispute with the West over Ukraine. The Balkan nation is increasingly torn over whether to continue toward membership in the 28-nation EU or give up that goal and forge even closer ties with Russia.
Serbia is Russia's main ally in the Balkans. The two countries have traditionally close historic and cultural ties, and Moscow has backed Belgrade's bid to maintain its claim over Kosovo — a former Serbian province which declared independence in 2008 with the support of Washington and its allies.
"We have been united by many things in the past, and I hope we face good common future," Putin told Serbia's pro-Russian president, Tomislav Nikolic.
Nikolic responded: "Serbia sees Russia as its big ally and partner, and we will always be on the same side."
The country's Western-leaning prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, tried to reassure the EU, however, that Serbia is not changing its proclaimed course.
"Serbia is on its European Union path and it will not sway from that road," he said after his meeting with Putin.
Although Serbian officials say they respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and do not support Russia's annexation of Crimea, they have refused to impose sanctions against Russia like the EU and the U.S. They say that would be disastrous for their country's stagnating economy — especially since most of its energy sector is controlled by Gazprom, the Russian energy giant.
Instead — and despite warnings from the EU — Serbia is hoping to capitalize on Russia's ban on Western goods by signing deals with Putin that would increase food exports to Russia.
During his talks with Vucic, Putin urged Serbia to profit from Moscow's sanctions against the West.
"It's a very good moment for Serbia to take a niche in the Russian market," he said, adding that Russian businessmen could offer loans to Serbian food producers so they could boost exports to Russia.
He said Moscow could offer Serbia a guarantee for exporting a certain number of cars to Russia from Serbia's Fiat factory.
Putin also stressed the importance of the Moscow-controlled South Stream gas pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine and transport Russian gas into the heart of Europe. The EU has urged Serbia and member states like Bulgaria to not start building the project, citing concerns over Russia's dual role as pipeline owner and gas supplier.
"I'm deeply convinced that this project is good for European consumers, because it allows for significantly reduced transit risks," Putin said. "Dragging the feet on its construction is linked exclusively with political factors. Politics are hurting the economy."
Vucic said last week, however, "it makes no sense" for Serbia to start building its part of the pipeline without an agreement on its legality between the EU and Moscow.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Jovana Gec contributed to this report.