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news 23 Feb 17

Serbian Towns Queue to Make Putin Honorary Citizen

While the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be growing in a number of countries, in Serbia he has long been a hero - with dozens of towns declaring him an honorary citizen.

Maja Zivanovic
BIRN
Belgrade

Russian President Vladimir Putin I Photo: Beta/Mikhail Klimentyev

According to a recent Gallop survey, some 22 per cent of Americans now say they have a favourable opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although his unfavourable rating is still far higher, at 72 per cent, the number of Americans who view Putin positively is the highest since 2003.

In Serbia, however, Putin has enjoyed tremendous support for a long time - and often tops the list of the most popular as well as most trusted foreign politicians.

One consequence of that is a slew of towns and cities in Serbia giving him the title of "honorary citizen", although he has never visited any of them.

The first town in Serbia that gave the Russian President this title were Vrbas, Raska and Mladenovac.

The initiative to designate Putin an honorary citizen of the Municipality of Vrbas was launched back in 2007 by local MPs of the Serbian Radical Party, Socialist Party of Serbia and the Democratic Party of Serbia.

Local Radical Party MP Dusan Kilibarda told the media that initiators had in mind primarily the actions of Putin and the Russian people in “resolving the status of Kosovo”, as well as his contribution to the development of cooperation between Serbia and “the friendly people of Russia”.

Russia and Serbia historically have warm relations based on Slavic ethnic ties and common membership of the Orthodox Church.

Most Serbs perceive Moscow as one of their biggest allies, especially in the battle to prevent international recognition of the independence of the former province of Kosovo.

Politicians from the two countries have for decades kept close and friendly relations.

Russia was among the first to condemn Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, and has since voted against the membership of Kosovo in international institutions in line with Belgrade’s policies.

In turn, Serbia refused to join Western sanctions on Russia for its perceived role in fomenting the conflict in Ukraine, despite numerous calls from the Brussels stating that Serbia – as an EU candidate country – needs to align its foreign policy with that of the union.

One year after Kosovo declared independence, the town of Loznica named Putin an honorary citizen in 2009, “as an expression of gratitude for his personal and for Russia's contribution to the preservation of the integrity of Serbia”.

Local authorities in the southern town of Raska, near Kosovo, gave Putin the honorary title in 2007, and in 2016 went a step further by making a video celebrating Putin’s birthday.

“You [Russians] have a great country, a heroic people and the best president. Today is the birthday of Vladimir Putin. We want to congratulate him and wish health, strength and endurance with God's help,” the video said.

It ended: “We [Serbs] and the Russians, 200 million [people]. Two hundred million greetings to Vladimir Vladimirovich”.

Serbia's second city of Novi Sad also pronounced Putin honorary citizen in 2008, and the letter recalling that decision was handed to him by Novi Sad Mayor Milos Vucevic in Belgrade in 2014.

According to Serbian media reports, Putin is an honorary citizen also of the towns of Vrnjacka Banja, Apatin, Ljubovija, Odzaci, Pozarevac, Vladicin Han and Svilajnac.

The Russian President is also an honorary citizen of several Serbian towns in the far north of Kosovo.

In Zvecan, Putin shares this title with, among others, tennis star Novak Djokovic and the director of the Serbian Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric.

In 2011, Zubin Potok gave Putin the same award for his “merit in the preservation of the integrity of Serbia”.

“The Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin sometimes did more for the Serbian people here than the government in Belgrade,” a representative of the Serbs in northern Kosovo, Krstimir Pantic, noted at the time, SRNA news agency reported.

However, not all towns in Serbia want to honour the Russian leader. In some, the initiative fell flat or was rejected by the town council.

In Sombor, for example, the local Radical Party MP proposed such an idea with the explanation that Putin and Russian foreign policy in general had guarded Serbia's dignity and integrity. But the proposal was rejected by the local assembly.

The mayor of Nis, in south-central Serbia, proposed Putin as honorary citizen back in 2007, but it never reached the agenda of the city asembly.

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