President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia arrived Thursday in Belgrade to commemorate the city’s liberation by the Red Army during World War II, in a visit that underlined Moscow’s growing attempt to assert its influence in the western Balkans, even as Serbia tries to link itself inextricably to the West without losing Russia’s support.
Snipers stood guard on rooftops, and thousands of spectators chanted, “Putin! Putin!” as Mr. Putin was awarded the Order of the Republic — Serbia’s highest honor — by President Tomislav Nikolic at a military parade. It included a procession of 3,000 Serbian soldiers and air acrobatics by Serbian and Russian fighter jets.
As the West and Russia are caught in Cold-War-style tensions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Serbia has tried to find a precarious balance, declining to join the West’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, while vowing that it remains committed to joining a European Union that is seeking to shun Mr. Putin. The American ambassador to Serbia was conspicuously absent from the ceremony.
Belgrade’s political contradictions were on display Thursday, along with a pomp and circumstance that Ivo Viskovic, a professor of political science at Belgrade University and former ambassador to Germany, said Belgrade had not witnessed since the heyday of the former Yugoslavia before the death of President Josip Broz Tito.
Addressing Mr. Putin, Mr. Nikolic pledged Serbia’s commitment to Russia, its longtime ally, while Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic vowed that Serbia would not sway from its “European Union path.”
“Serbia will not compromise its morals with any kind of bad behavior towards Russia,” Mr. Nikolic was quoted as saying by B92, a leading Serbian broadcaster, after he and Mr. Putin laid wreaths at a memorial in Belgrade to Soviet soldiers.
In remarks that analysts said appeared calibrated to avoid embarrassing Serbia in front of its Western partners, Mr. Putin focused largely on the Soviet Union’s heroic role during World War II.