Serbia's president said a Russian spy scandal would not scuttle close relations. He said it wasn't an isolated incident — and that it's not the only country spying on Serbia.
Serbia's president confirmed on Thursday that a video of a Russian spy bribing a former Serbia officer is authentic, but said that the espionage scandal would not impact close bilateral relations.
President Aleksandar Vucic's remarks to reporters came after he convened a National Security Council meeting over a video posted on November 18 on YouTube that shows Lt. Col. Georgy Kleban, a former assistant military attache at Russia's embassy in Belgrade, handing a bag to a retired Serb officer.
The video shows the Serbian officer, identified by Vucic as only Z.K., take an envelope out of the bag and count money in his car.
Vucic said the video was filmed in December 2018. He said Kleban was recorded 10 times in similar situations, with three cases involving money handouts.
Vucic added that the Russian case was not unique, with Serbia a "target of fierce intelligence activities from many countries," including Austria, Germany and Bulgaria.
The Russian intelligence officer is no longer in Serbia, Vucic said.
Serbia asks Russia: 'Why?'
Serbia and Russia have close political, military, economic and cultural ties. The Balkan nation hasn't imposed sanctions on Ukraine for Russia's annexation of Crimea, and Moscow backs Serbia in countering international recognition of Kosovo.
Although Serbia seeks to join the European Union, it has vowed to stay out of NATO.
"I have one question for our Russian friends," Vucic told a news conference. "Why?"
"As far as we are concerned, we won't change our policy toward Russia, we see it as a friendly and brotherly country,'' he said.
Vucic is scheduled to visit Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin on December 4. He said he didn't believe Putin knew about the spying incident.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the emergence of the video as a "provocative action."
"Summit level contacts are due soon. We have become accustomed to seeing some ostensibly breaking news hit the headlines several days ahead of a summit or high-level contacts," she said. "As time passes, everything is either refuted or turns out to be a hastily cooked-up provocation," Zakharova said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said nothing would damage Serbia-Russia relations, adding that the Kremlin was unaware of the purported incident.
Finance minister under fire for plagiarism
The Russian spy scandal broke as a close ally of Vucic came under pressure from the opposition to resign over plagiarism.
The University of Belgrade said on Thursday that Finance Minister Sinisa Mali plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis after scholars had challenged his work.
Mali "copied texts, or entire paragraphs, from the writings of other authors without mentioning their names, thus violating the university's ethical code," the university said in a statement.
The university's dean, Ivanka Popovic, said the ethics board had decided to annul the degree Mali had earned with his 2013 thesis, which focused on restructuring and privatization.
cw/stb (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)