BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's defense minister has said that the country is expecting Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval for the delivery of fighter jets, which could worsen tensions with neighboring states.
Defense Minister Zoran Djordjevic told the Blic daily on Sunday that Putin's signature on the delivery of six MiG-29s is only a formality and that "they will be arriving for sure."
The jets that are to come from Russian air force reserves will formally be delivered for free, but their refurbishing will cost 185 million euros, officials said.
"It's in our interest that the MiGs arrive as soon as possible so we start their repairs and modernization," Djordjevic said.
Serbian media have said that the delivery will be timed to the April 2 presidential election to boost the chances of current populist Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is now vying for the presidency. Vucic has said he will meet Putin before the vote, which pits him against a number of opposition candidates.
The delivery of the MiGs, including another eight being negotiated with Belarus, could further increase tensions in the western Balkans where former Yugoslav republics have been engaged in disagreements over a number of issues.
Serbia formally has been on the path to join the European Union, but under political and propaganda pressure from Moscow has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping the countries in the region out of NATO and other Western institutions.
EU officials have voiced their alarm over increasing Russian, as well as Turkish, influence in the Balkans, which has seen a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
President Donald Trump's stance toward NATO, which he once described as an "obsolete" organization, and his warming of relations with Putin, also has worried pro-Western forces in the still-volatile region.
This story has been corrected to show that Russia will deliver 6 fighter jets, not 4.