Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Serbia on January 17, vowing to deepen economic ties, including increasing cooperation in civil nuclear energy, natural gas and railways.

During Putin’s visit, a package of agreements was signed in Belgrade, creating a legal foundation for the practical implementation of joint projects in the field of nuclear energy use for peaceful purposes: an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy use based on proven and innovative technologies, as well as a joint statement on the strategic partnership between the countries for the construction of a center of nuclear science, technology and innovation, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom said.

Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev and Serbia’s Innovation and Technological Development Nenad Popovich signed the documents in the presence of Putin and Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic were present at the ceremony.

“Today we are laying a solid foundation for the development of high technologies in Serbia for many years to come,” Popovich said, adding that improving economic efficiency, the developing agriculture, medicine, education and the quality of life is difficult to imagine without the use of peaceful atom. “Signing the intergovernmental agreement marks the beginning of close and substantive cooperation in the field of innovation, digital, scientific and technical cooperation with our historical partner – Russia,” Popovich said.

The intergovernmental agreement establishes a wide range of cooperation areas between the countries, including, but not limited to, assistance in the creation and improvement of nuclear energy infrastructure in Serbia, design, construction and modernisation of research nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine development, implementation of fundamental and applied research in the field of nuclear energy, development of innovations, new technologies and modern digital technologies in the field of nuclear energy, radiation technologies application in agriculture, industry; education, training and retraining of specialists for the nuclear industry.

For his part, Likhachev hailed Serbia’s “unique potential and experience in the development and use of nuclear technologies. We have identified projects that will combine professional human and technical competencies of Russia and Serbia. In particular, the implementation of the project to build the center of nuclear science, technology and innovation will not only give a powerful impetus to bilateral cooperation between Russia and Serbia in a number of innovative areas, including medicine, industry and agriculture”.

The Rosatom Director stressed that this partnership will also serve as a platform for cooperation at the level of the entire Central European region. All projects will strictly comply with the highest standards of nuclear and radiation safety, taking into account the central role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the development of such norms and standards, Likhachev said.

In order to implement the aforementioned areas of cooperation, the intergovernmental agreement provides for the formation of joint working groups to carry out specific projects and research, as well as expert exchange, the organization of seminars and conferences, assistance in educating and training scientific and technical personnel, equipment, materials and components supply.

During a press conference with Vucic said Serbia practically fully depends on Russia for gas supplies. “We have reached agreements on building a gas pipeline in the future, expanding our gas storage that will hold 750 million cubic metres of gas in Banatski Dvor, building a power station and providing gas for the whole of Serbia,” he said.

Vucic said that Russia and Serbia also signed large agreements and memorandums on the current maintenance of railways. “These contracts are already worth $230 million and if we organise everything as we started, they will be worth €660 million,” he said.

Vucic also said that he updated Putin on the developments in Kosovo and Metohija. “Putin expressed support for our position on this matter,” Vucic said. “I told President Putin that Serbia is always willing to hold talks and make compromises, but it will never accept humiliation. I believe that some people are not ready for compromise, but we will continue to act in this spirit. As I pointed out to President Putin, we will look for compromises, but we will not tolerate humiliation,” he added.

For his part, Putin said Moscow and Belgrade confirmed their intention to continue the development of multifaceted Russian-Serbian strategic partnership in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation. “Russia, like Serbia, is interested in the situation in the Balkans remaining stable and not dangerous,” Putin said.

Turning to trade and investment cooperation and interaction, Putin said contacts between the countries’ industrial and agricultural enterprises, as well as business circles and scientific communities are being maintained.

According to Putin, energy is a key area of Russian-Serbian cooperation. Russian natural gas exports to Serbia grew by 20% and reached 2.3 billion cubic metres in 2018.”

By 2022, Gazprom plans to increase deliveries to 3.5 billion cubic metres. To that end, in 2019 a project will be launched to increase the capacity of the Banatski Dvor underground gas storage facility in Serbia from 450 million cubic metres to 750 million. Work will also continue to expand the Serbian gas transportation network,” Putin said, adding that these measures will significantly improve the energy security of Serbia and the entire Balkan region.

Putin’s visit to Belgrade comes as Serbia, which has repeatedly stated its pro-European policy, faces increasing bureaucratic hurdles and delays from Brussels on its path towards European integration.

According to a European spokesperson on January 17, the Serbian government has identified EU integration as the country’s strategic priority. “We expect Serbia to act in line with this commitment so that its European Union perspective is not undermined,” the spokesperson said adding that in order to progress on the EU integration path, Serbia has to progressively align with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy in line with the Negotiating Framework. However, Balkan observers say that, for its part, Brussels has done very little to integrate Serbian into the European Union.