- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 24, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - Serbia’s defense minister on Tuesday sharply criticized as offensive the remarks by a U.S. diplomat who said Belgrade needs to choose between Russia and the West if it wants to join the European Union.

Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, known for his pro-Russian stance, told state news agency Tanjug that the remarks by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee represent “the greatest pressure against Serbia yet.”

“This is not a statement made by a friend or a person respecting Serbia, our policy and respecting our right to decide independently,” Vulin said, adding that Serbia will choose its course regardless of what the big powers want.

Yee said in Belgrade on Monday that countries wanting to join the EU “must very clearly demonstrate this desire.”

“You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far apart,” he said.

“Countries must choose which path to follow; regardless of how difficult it would be, the country has to make its strategic choices which must be part of official policy,” Yee said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s office said that during a meeting Tuesday the U.S. envoy expressed “perception that Serbia is with one foot on a EU path, and another in a union with Russia.”

The president’s office said Vucic “carefully listened to the American official and has responded very directly.” It said Vucic will “in the next few days” reveal what he said.

Serbia is formally seeking EU membership, but under pressure from its historic Slavic ally Russia, has gradually slid toward the Kremlin. Russia wants to keep countries in the Balkan region out of NATO and other Western bodies.

“It is clear from Russia’s actions that it wants to have disjointed Balkans, not strong and united,” Yee said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticized Yee’s comments and warned the U.S. against “trying to enforce its hostile ideological stereotypes on others, undermining the foundation for international stability and cooperation in the Balkans and in Europe as a whole.”

The ministry noted in a statement that many EU nations engage in mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia.

“No one should prevent Serbia from taking a similar approach proceeding from its national interests,” the ministry said.

___

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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