First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is widely expected to win the March 2 presidential election, has arrived in Belgrade, where he pledged Moscow's continued backing for Serbia's opposition to Kosovo's independence.
Speaking after meeting Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Medvedev said: "The main purpose of our brief visit, of course, is to express support for Serbia at the time of illegitimate actions and a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. Our position is that Serbia is a single state whose jurisdiction covers all of its territory."
Medvedev added that Kosovo's February 17 declaration of independence "destroys the international security system, the international legal system, that mankind formed more than 100 years ago."
Formally, Medvedev is traveling to Belgrade to discuss economic and energy issues. But the February 25 visit, Medvedev's first major foreign-policy trip, comes amid a sharpening disagreement between Russia and the West over Kosovo's independence from Serbia.
Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, says Medvedev's visit is intended to show Moscow's solidarity with its Slavic ally. "I think there is a deep political context here. This is an effort to show support for Serbia in its confrontation with the West over Kosovo. It is a show of solidarity with Serbia in its nonrecognition of Kosovo. Russia is showing that it sees Pristina's actions as unacceptable and that it plans to cooperate with Serbia," Volk says.
The United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany have all recognized Kosovo's independence. Russia, which is emerging as Serbia's closest ally, has called the Albanian-majority province's February 17 independence declaration illegal.
Medvedev's visit follows violent anti-Western demonstrations in Belgrade last week, in which protesters angry over Kosovo's independence hurled rocks, set fires, and attacked the U.S. Embassy.
Analysts say Medvedev's trip is also an effort to make him appear presidential as Russians prepare to go to the polls on March 2. Volk adds that it is also a signal that outgoing President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy will not change under Medvedev.
"This is an effort to demonstrate that there is continuity in Russia's foreign policy, that Medvedev is not going to move away from Putin's line. It shows that Medvedev naturally agrees with the Kremlin and that Russia's foreign policy will not change," Volk says.
Volk adds that this trip, combined with Medvedev's comments last week accusing the British Council of spying on Russia, are an indication that he will continue Putin's hard-line foreign policy.
Moscow's saber-rattling over Kosovo reached a new level last week when Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, appeared to suggest that Russia was prepared to use armed force against NATO. Rogozin later backed off his comments.Energy issues also figured high on Medvedev's agenda. In addition to his government post, Medvedev is also chairman of Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, Gazprom.
In January, the Kremlin signed a series of energy agreements with Serbia. One deal routes a leg of Russia's South Stream pipeline through Serbia and another aims to build underground gas-storage facilities in the country. Additionally, a Gazprom subsidiary purchased a majority stake in the Serbian oil company NIS.
As part of today's visit, Medvedev signed a deal with Belgrade to establish a joint company to build the South Stream pipeline extension and the underground storage facilities. Kostunica said the deal shows that "cooperation between Serbia and Russia is ongoing at all levels.
Serbian President Boris Tadic has sought to steer his country in a pro-Western direction and into the European Union. Nationalists close to Kostunica, however, view moving into Russia's sphere of influence as a viable alternative.