Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle : Parallels Serbia has long had close ties to Russia. But as with other Slavic countries, it's also looking to develop ties with Western Europe. It's a tough balance to strike these days.
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Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle

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Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle

Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

No matter what happens with Greece, the turmoil there could serve as a warning to other countries that still aspire to join the European Union. We're going to visit one of the now - Serbia. It's part of the former Yugoslavia and now stands at a crossroads pulled between the West and Russia. NPR's Ari Shapiro figured Serbia would be a good place to assess the current appeal of the European brand versus the Russian one. Here's his report from Belgrade.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At this park in the center of Belgrade, Serbia, Russia has paid for huge renovations and a brand-new statue showing the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, standing proudly at attention in a military uniform, holding a sword and a crown, staring out across the plaza.

DRAGAN MARCOVIC: He was a really good guy for Serbia.

SHAPIRO: Dragan Marcovic is an 18-year-old student. He explains that Tsar Nicholas helped the Serbs during World War I and says if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to help the Serbs now, he'll take it.

MARCOVIC: But if the European Union wants to give us support, we'll say thank you.

SHAPIRO: Right now, there's a tug-of-war over Serbia and other countries in this region with Russia on one side and the West on the other. Dragica Nedelkovic is a retired economics teacher sitting in the park, and to her, there's no question who's winning this contest.

DRAGICA NEDELKOVIC: (Through interpreter) I bought a juicer in Russia. It can squeeze juice out of a stone. In bought one in Germany, and it freezes up the minute it hits a bit of orange pulp.

SHAPIRO: It's not just parks and juicers. Russia is waging an active campaign to win hearts and minds here with TV networks and radio stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAPIRO: But hearts and minds are one thing. The pocketbook is another. Serbia trades far more with Western Europe than with Russia. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic spoke in Washington a few weeks ago at Johns Hopkins University. He said he's made Serbia's intentions clear to Vladimir Putin.

ALEKSANDAR VUCIC: And in front of him, I was very proudly and very openly speaking about Serbia's EU path. And I said that Serbia won't give him that path.

SHAPIRO: Here's why Serbia's commitment to that EU path matters to the United States. The U.S. and its NATO allies fought two wars in the former Yugoslavia, and there's lingering Serbian resentment. Now Russia is in a standoff with the West trying to expand its influence. So Serbia is one place to weigh the appeal of these two models. It sometimes seems like the government here wants to have it both ways. While the prime minister talks about joining the European Union, Serbia's president talks about getting closer to Russia.

In October, Belgrade welcomed Putin with its first military parade in decades. Jets flew in formation. Tanks rolled through the streets. Soldiers marched, and thousands of Serbs turned out in the rain to cheer the Russian leader.

ALENA BUKILIC: Actually, I was feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed.

SHAPIRO: Alena Bukilic is a politician in her late '20s. Sitting in a rooftop wine bar in Belgrade, she says she actually does love Russia.

BUKILIC: Moscow is like my - one of the top favorite cities in the world. I would live there this instant if I could, but Putin is an oppressor. That's how I see him.

SHAPIRO: Put that attitude in a mirror, and you get Milos Kovic, a history teacher at the University of Belgrade.

MILOS KOVIC: I was educated partly in the West, so I love Western culture. I was brought up with rock n' roll music, you know, and not with balalaikas.

(LAUGHTER)

KOVIC: But again, I'm just trying to make a rational choice. Foreign policy is not the same as cultural affinity.

SHAPIRO: He sees the United States as a bigger threat than Russia. And there are those people who don't want to choose sides. Plenty of people in Belgrade told me Serbia is a small country; we can't afford to alienate Russia or the West. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Belgrade, Serbia.

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