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Premier: Serbia ready to reduce dependence on Russian gas

Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, speaks at the news conference after talks with host Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, as the first Serbian leader to visit the nation after a troubled past, at the Palace of Brigades in the Albanian capital, Tirana, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Both countries are trying to overcome their troubled past while working toward EU membership. Relations between the two Balkan states remain strained, mainly over the former Serbian province of Kosovo where majority ethnic Albanians declared independence in 2008 which Serbia refused to recognize. (AP Photo/Hektor Pustina)

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — In a major policy shift, the Serbian prime minister said his country will accept U.S. calls to reduce dependency on Russian gas by adding an American-backed pipeline that would bring gas to Europe from Azerbaijan.

“Regarding energy safety, energy security, we are ready to diversify the sources of gas for Serbia, which is very important for our American friends as well,” Aleksandar Vucic told The Associated Press in an interview.

The United States has been encouraging Balkan and other states to move forward with the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which will take Azeri gas from the Caspian Sea to Italy, rather than setting its hopes on another project that would pipe Russian gas through Turkey.

The West has accused Russia of using gas as a tool to increase its political influence over countries like Serbia.

Serbia, a traditional Russian ally that wants to join the European Union, has already expressed interest in the Moscow-backed pipeline project dubbed Turkish Stream. Supporting the alternative American-backed pipeline is a major policy shift by Serbia which could be viewed with unease in Moscow.

Russia last year scrapped plans for another pipeline in southern Europe — that was to pass through Serbia — amid a deepening crisis with the West over Ukraine.

Serbia has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over its policies in Ukraine. Some Western officials have urged Serbia to make up its mind on where it wants to go — closer to Russia or the EU.

“It’s not about balancing, our strategic goal is EU path and we are very firm on our EU path,” Vucic said in the interview on Wednesday. “Yes, on the other hand, we would like to preserve good relationship with Russia.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “I don’t see it, you know? We don’t speak about taking or choosing sides, our side is our path to EU, our side is (the interest of) Serbia.

“I was saying it in front of Vladimir Putin at a press conference, very publicly, very openly. Can you mention another guy who said that very openly like I did in front of Vladimir Putin?”

He also said that good relations with Washington are very important on Serbia’s road to the EU.

“Washington of course is enormously important and we hope that they’ll support our EU way and they’ll also support our economic reforms, which is very important for our country.”

Vucic was speaking in Tirana during the first visit by a Serbian head of government to Albania. He travels to Washington in early June for talks with top U.S. officials.

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Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

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