BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia and Russia confirmed Monday that a planned visit by Russia's foreign minister to the Balkan country will not take place, with Moscow accusing the West of preventing the trip by blocking the envoy's plane flight.
The announcement followed reports that Serbia's neighbors — Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro — had refused to allow Sergey Lavrov's plane to fly through their airspace to reach Serbia.
“An unthinkable thing has happened,” Lavrov said during an online news conference Monday. “A sovereign state has been deprived of its right to conduct foreign policies. The international activities of Serbia on the Russian track have been blocked.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic earlier Monday met with Russia's ambassador to Serbia who informed him that Lavrov could not come because the Russian government plane was denied necessary flyover permissions, a statement issued after the meeting said.
Vucic expressed “dissatisfaction” over the “circumstances” that prevented the visit and added that "despite all, Serbia will preserve independence and autonomy in political decision-making."
Later Monday, Vucic told state RTS broadcaster that the cancelation of the visit “was not too much of a surprise” and that arrangements faced problems from the start.
“Russia is a traditional friend of Serbia,” Vucic said, describing Serbia's policies toward Russia as a “rational, sensible and soothing way within Europe, where it is not easy to hear a voice of reason and dialogue."
While formally still seeking European Union membership, Serbia has maintained friendly ties with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, refusing to join Western sanctions against Moscow. Many in Serbia view the fellow-Slavic nation as a close ally and Moscow has backed Serbia in its effort to retain its claim on Kosovo.
Lavrov blamed NATO countries for engineering the flight ban — Montenegro, Bulgaria and North Macedonia are all members of NATO — noting that the action showed again that the main purpose of the alliance expansion is to try to isolate Russia.
Lavrov still plans to travel for talks Wednesday in Turkey, where he can fly directly over the Black Sea. Turkey has sought to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine while also trying to help international mediation efforts in the war.
The Russian foreign minister said the West has trampled on the principle of a free choice of foreign policy partners.
“From the Western viewpoint, Serbia mustn’t have any choice, any freedom in choosing its partners,” he said. “The West clearly shows that it would use any base means to apply pressure."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov deplored what what he described as “hostile actions," but said this "won’t significantly hamper the continuation of our country’s contacts with friendly countries like Serbia.”
In Belgrade, Serbia's pro-Russian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin expressed “deep regret” that a “great and proven” friend of Serbia could not come. Vulin added that “Serbia is proud that it is not part of anti-Russian hysteria, and the countries that are (part of it) will have time to be ashamed.”
Serbia, meanwhile, also is almost fully dependent on Russian gas. Vucic recently talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone to arrange a new deal on gas supplies for the next three years.
Analyst Slobodan Stupar described Lavrov's attempted visit to Belgrade as a “show” that would have been used by Moscow to further vilify the West.
“I believe the Russians invited themselves” to Serbia, Stupar told The Associated Press. “They are terribly isolated. ... They can now say that Europe and the world are not democratic and won't allow a simple flyover.”
Stupar said Vucic has placed himself “in between” Russia and the West.
“That is the worst possible position one can imagine,” Stupar said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected in the region later this week.
Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.