By Adam Tanner
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Russia is playing on Serbia's mistaken belief that it is still a key player in the power dynamic with the West to draw the country's focus away from joining the EU and NATO, U.S. diplomats have concluded.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will emphasize the bonds linking the two Orthodox Christian nations during a visit to Serbia Wednesday, the eve of the 12th anniversary of the NATO bombing over Belgrade's policy toward Kosovo.
U.S. cables two years ago highlight concern about Russian diplomacy in the region around the same anniversary.
The "nostalgia for being courted by both Russia and the West remains a part of Serbia's yearning for self-importance and leads to a mistaken belief that it can chart an independent path while still committing to EU membership as a strategic objective," an embassy official wrote in May 2009.
Another embassy official was even more pointed in a confidential July 2009 cable: "Serbia continues to believe it has a bridging role to play between Russia and the EU, which is widely scoffed at in European circles."
The comments are in a series of U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks and obtained by Reuters which show continued aggressive jockeying for influence between Moscow and Washington in Europe two decades after the end of the Cold War.
Leader Josip Broz Tito kept his Communist Yugoslavia outside of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. That status at arm's length from both superpower camps gave Belgrade a prominent role in the Non-Aligned Movement.
After the break-up of the country and its pariah status during the 1990s war years, Serbia is trying to reintegrate its ties with the West and rebuild an economy still smaller than it was two decades ago.
It has applied to join the EU but the bid is being held back by its inability to capture wanted war criminal General Ratko Mladic and its poor ties with its former province of Kosovo.
Putin's visit on the eve of the anniversary of NATO bombing appears deliberately timed to remind Serbia of its past differences with the West.
"The Russians appear to be basking in their 'Serbia's Savior' role, using the tenth anniversary of the NATO intervention in Kosovo as an opportunity to raise their public profile in Serbia and cast the U.S. and other Western partners in a negative light," one cable concluded at around the same time two years ago.
"This campaign resembles classic Soviet agitprop, vilifying the United States, while casting Russia as the fount of justice and international order. Stirring up Balkan unrest is a dangerous game, but current Russian behavior demonstrates that it's the game they clearly want to play."
"Serbs and Russians are profoundly ignorant of each other, the former from a lack of any real interaction throughout history, and the latter out of utter lack of interest; other than Serbia's periodic usefulness as a naive and willing Russian pawn in the Balkans," one official wrote in 2009.
"The only 'winner' in this calculation is Russia, who will continue to play on Serbia's naivete and stubbornness, to keep itself a player in Balkan politics and to keep Serbia out of NATO."
GIVING AWAY ASSETS
The cables cast doubt on the wisdom of Serbia's 2009 sale of a 51 percent stake in its oil refiner NIS to Russia's Gazprom Neft for 400 million euros ($547.3 million).
"Serbia's current partnership with Russia has resulted in support for Serbia's quixotic and resource-exhausting quest to 'keep' Kosovo, but at the price of practically donating to the Russians her oil giant NIS," one cable said in July 2009.
The comments make clear that Washington still wants to work closely with Belgrade and the administration of its President Boris Tadic, however.
"In spite of their misplaced and misunderstood sentimentality for Russia, Serbs crave American respect," one diplomat wrote in 2009 just after President Barack Obama took office.
"Though the Tadic administration has done scant little to deserve it, the incoming U.S. administration has an opportunity to give his 'pro-European' government an alternative to Russia."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)