As the war in Ukraine rages, Serbia's president announced that he has secured an "extremely favorable" natural gas deal with Russia during a telephone conversation Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has refused to explicitly condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and his country has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow. Vucic claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has spent recent years cementing ties with Russia, a longtime ally.
The gas deal is likely to be signed during a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Belgrade early in June — a rare visit by a ranking Russian official to a European country since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24.
Vucic said he told Putin that he wished "peace would be established as soon as possible."
Serbia is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas, and its main energy companies are under Russian majority ownership.
"What I can tell you is that we have agreed on the main elements that are very favorable for Serbia," Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist, told reporters. "We agreed to sign a three-year contract, which is the first element of the contract that suits the Serbian side very well."
It is not clear how Serbia would receive the Russian gas if the EU decides to shut off the Russian supply that travels over its member countries. Russia has already cut off gas exports to EU members Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
The EU has been hurriedly reducing its reliance on Russian energy since the invasion and is set to discuss ways to further do so and to hear from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a leaders' summit that starts Monday.
Despite reports of the atrocities in Ukraine due to the invasion, Vucic and other Serbian leaders have been complaining of Western pressure to join sanctions against Russia. Serbian officials say the Balkan country must resist such pressure, even if it means abandoning the goal of joining the EU.
Under Vucic's 10-year autocratic rule and relentless pro-Kremlin propaganda, Serbia has gradually slid toward aligning with Russia. Polls suggest a majority in the country would rather join some sort of a union with Moscow than the EU.
"The agreement reached by President Vucic with President Putin is proof of how much Serbia's decision not to participate in anti-Russian hysteria is respected," Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said.
"The free leader, free people, make decisions that are good for Serbia and do not accept orders" from the West, said Vulin, who is known for his pro-Russian stance.