BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's foreign minister said Friday his country's close ties with Russia are not hampering Belgrade's chairmanship over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has a key monitoring role in Ukraine.
Ivica Dacic told The Associated Press in an interview that Serbia's close-knit relationship with traditional Slavic ally Russia "most certainly is not a handicap" when it comes to remaining unbiased in the Ukrainian crisis.
Dacic said "even the Ukrainian foreign minister told me ... they see it as an advantage if it is used for de-escalation" of hostilities.
Serbia took over the OSCE chairmanship in January amid some concern in the West because of Belgrade's refusal to impose Western-backed sanctions against Moscow over its role in Ukraine.
"Many have said that it will be a big challenge for us," Dacic said. "Our role is not to take sides, but to help achieve goals that the OSCE has in the conflict areas, one of which is Ukraine."
Dacic said that Serbia has learned lessons from the 1990's war in the former Yugoslavia, which could be of help in finding a solution to the Ukraine crisis. Over 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless in the bloody breakup of the Balkan federation.
"The experience that we have means that we understand the nature of the conflict and the importance of reaching a compromise in time before the war escalates beyond limits and becomes hard to stop," Dacic said.
Ukraine placed a formal request Friday with the United Nations for a peacekeeping mission to be deployed in its eastern regions, where a cease-fire between government troops and Russian-backed separatist forces is in place.
Dacic said "for now, the main course of action is to strengthen the OSCE mission on the ground. No other options are being considered at the moment."
He spoke a day after OSCE extended its monitoring mission in Ukraine from six months to one year and said it may increase the number of monitors from 500 to 1,000 if it gets access to various war zones in the east.
He said the decision "opens a new stage" for the OSCE mission in Ukraine — "the only international presence in the country, which makes it even more important."
Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia