Putin Visit to Serbia to Focus on Gas

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has confirmed that he will visit Serbia on October 19 for the 70th anniversary celebration of the Soviet Red Army's liberation of Belgrade at the end of the Second World War.

At meetings with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, talks will focus on bilateral cooperation over the South Stream gas pipeline, part of which is to pass through Serbia.

Serbia and Russia are closes allies and - despite pressure from Brussels - Serbia has refused to join sanctions imposed on Russia in relarion to its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine.

Belgrade has also refused to abandon its plans to participate in the Russian-managed gas pipeline.

Belgrade officials insist that the project is crucial for Serbia's energy sustainability and cannot be sacrificed.

The South Stream pipeline will pump natural gas from Russia under the Black Sea, then through Bulgaria and Serbia towards Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. The Serbian section of the pipeline will run for 421 kilometres.

The European Commission has already forced Bulgaria to suspend its participation in the project, claiming that the Russian state-run energy giant, Gazprom, would have a monopolistic position over the pipeline, which would violate internal EU regulations.

The EU is keen to reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia.

Putin's confirmation of the Belgrade visit comes at a time of unprecedented international pressure on Moscow from the US and some European countries over Ukraine, which has heightened dramatically since the downing of the Air Malaysia flight over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers on board.

Putin is widely blamed for arming the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who likely shot down the plane by mistake.

Putin was last in Belgrade in March 2011, when he met the then President, Boris Tadic, visited the Serbian parliament, the Red Star football stadium and the Orthodox cathedral of St Sava.