BELGRADE, Serbia — Vladimir Putin has accused the U.S. and the West of destabilizing the Balkans with NATO expansionist policies as Serbia prepares a hero's welcome for the Russian president.
Putin arrives in Serbia on Thursday for his fourth visit to the Balkan country since 2001. A fountain on Belgrade's main square has been lit in the colors of the Russian and Serbian flags, bookstores in the capital are displaying works about Putin, and a plateau in front of the biggest Orthodox Church in the Balkans is being hastily paved before his planned visit to the temple.
Serbia has maintained close links with traditional Slavic ally Russia even as the country formally seeks European Union membership. Belgrade has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has promised it will stay out of NATO.
Putin told two Serbian pro-government newspapers in an interview published Wednesday that "the policy of the United States and certain Western countries aimed to foster their dominance in the region constitutes a major destabilizing factor."
Despite strong Russian opposition, Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 while Macedonia is trying to settle its name dispute with Greece in order to join the Western military alliance. Last week, NATO foreign ministers restarted a program that could also lead to Bosnia's membership. Serbia's four other neighbors are already members.
"In 2017, Montenegro was drawn into NATO in disregard of the opinion of half of its population," Putin said. "They did not dare to hold a relevant referendum. The country is going through a period of political instability as a result."
Two Russian military secret service operatives have been accused in Montenegro for trying to stage a coup in in the tiny Adriatic state in 2016 to stop it from joining NATO.
Putin said that in Macedonia "last year, the process of adoption of constitutional amendments, renaming of the country, and revision of fundamentals of the Macedonian national identity was launched in the Republic of Macedonia for the purpose of accelerating its inclusion in NATO."
He said that while the West leads wrong policies in the Balkans, Russia "knows and understands the complexity of the Balkans and history of the region."
Putin said Russia "has always viewed (the Balkans) as a space for constructive cooperation. So Russia has many friends here today, and the strategic partner Serbia holds a special place."
Historically close ties between Russia and Serbia have recently been visibly revived after Putin stepped up efforts to restore Moscow's influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.