EU and Russia vie over Balkans influence
For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in south-east Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on a hostile continent.
The European Union is now pushing back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker embarks on a seven-nation Balkans tour today to promote the EU's new eastward expansion strategy.
Russia wants to discourage the western Balkan countries - Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia - from joining Nato, but is also trying to deter them from joining the EU.
The EU sees the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s. Its expansion strategy puts Serbia and Montenegro in position to join should the bloc open its doors to more members, tentatively by 2025.
Serbia is a major target of Moscow's anti-Western activities because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations share deep cultural and historical ties. The Kremlin is so concerned about losing its ally that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly argued while in Serbia last week that EU membership isn't all it is cut out to be.
Serbian political analyst Bosko Jaksic thinks the Russians are getting increasingly nervous as they lose allies one by one in the Balkans.
"It's not clear how far they are willing to go to preserve their interests here, but judging from what they did in Ukraine, they are willing to go far," Jaksic said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Juncker said: "Investing in the stability and prosperity of the western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union."