EU-Russia row: Serbia offers to bang heads together

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPresident Tomislav Nikolic: "We cannot sever traditional ties with Russia – our people would never forgive us"

"I think the presidents should be locked up in a room until they come up with a solution," says Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic of the leaders of Russia and the European Union.

Serbia certainly has the credentials to act as honest broker in the dispute that has arisen over the conflict in Ukraine.

It has just completed its first year of formal negotiations to join the EU. But it is maintaining its strong ties with Russia and refusing to implement sanctions, despite pressure from Brussels.

President Nikolic is well-known for his plain-speaking style, occasionally landing in diplomatic hot water as a result.

But this time, in an interview with the BBC, he is offering Serbia's services in solving a deepening conflict, rather than proposing the detention of some fellow heads of state.

Significantly, Serbia has just taken the chair of the OSCE, the intergovernmental security organisation which is currently monitoring the situation in Ukraine.

Mr Nikolic admits that his country is in an awkward situation, with two of its most important partners at loggerheads, and he sees it as a major challenge.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Vladimir Putin (left) was Mr Nikolic's guest of honour at a military parade in Belgrade in October

"It's like having two children - you can't disown one of them," he says.

"We cannot sever our traditional ties with Russia. Our people would never forgive us."

But he hopes Serbia can help the EU and Russia remember their common interests - not least in terms of energy.

The dispute has led to the cancellation of Russia's South Stream pipeline, which would have provided Serbia with a major infrastructure project as well as improved energy security.

If a solution to the crisis could be found, it would also reduce the pressure on the government in Belgrade to align its foreign policy with Brussels.

The further Serbia moves towards membership of the EU, the harder it will become to take a diplomatic line out of step with the 28-member bloc's common policy.

Still, Mr Nikolic believes accession is still some way off.

An initial target of 2020 always seemed optimistic, but so far none of the 35 "chapters" covering what Serbia must do to achieve membership has opened for negotiation.

"I'm happy with Serbia's pace of meeting the requirements - and how the EU has been treating us," he says.

"But the pace seems to be slow and it's not down to Serbia to make it any quicker. That's up to the EU."