Ahead of a visit Thursday to Belgrade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Western countries for "destabilising" the Balkans, returning an accusation often lobbed in his direction.
"As for the situation in the Balkans, a serious destabilising factor there is the policy of the US and some other Western countries aimed at securing their dominance in the region," he told the Serbian Vecernje Novosti newspaper in an interview published on the Kremlin website.
The Balkans are often cast as a battleground between Eastern and Western powers, though all countries in the region aspire to join the European Union and most are already allied with NATO.
However Serbia, while also an EU candidate, remains a staunch Moscow ally and is set to welcome Putin with a parade on Thursday.
The two countries share Slavic roots and the Orthodox Christian faith, which Putin described as their "spiritual and cultural kinship".
They are also united over the issue of Kosovo -- the former Serbian province whose independence Belgrade refuses to acknowledge. Moscow has supported Serbia on this front and can use its veto to block Kosovo from the United Nations.
The US, a strong ally to Kosovo, has frequently accused Russia of meddling in the affairs of the region, including in last year's referendum in Macedonia to change its name, a prerequisite for joining NATO.
Putin however accused the West of pressuring Macedonia and Montenegro, a new NATO candidate, against the will of their people.
The NATO expansion efforts are drawing "new dividing lines on the European continent," he told the newspaper Politika.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also questioned the "legitimacy" of the Macedonia name-change referendum, which is an effort to end a long-running row with Greece.
"We do not oppose the name that has been proposed, we only question...the willingness of the United States to lead all Balkan states into NATO as soon as possible and to remove any Russian influence in this region," he said.
"We cannot agree with those who say that Russia has no place in the Balkans," Lavrov added.
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