Serbian Minister Defends Deal With Russia Amid Criticism

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- Serbia's foreign minister on Sunday sought to play down the importance of an agreement with Russia after the Balkan state that is seeking European Union membership faced criticism for signing it.

Nikola Selakovic signed the agreement Friday along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, where most Western delegations shunned Russia's top diplomat over the country's invasion of Ukraine.

=Selakovic said at a news conference Sunday that the agreement is a "technical" one and relates to bilateral ties, but not security issues. Serbia has been signing similar documents with Russia since 1996, Selakovic insisted.

"The government could have rejected such a plan but there is nothing contentious in it," he added. "It is being criticized by those who haven't seen it."

The consultation plan covered by the agreement is expected to last for two years, Serbia's foreign ministry said in a Friday statement. Serbia officially is a candidate for European Union membership, but the government maintains good relations with Russia.

The news of the deal triggered harsh criticism from the pro-EU opposition at home and some EU politicians. A member of the European Parliament from Germany, Viola von Cramon, suggested the possible suspension of EU accession talks with Serbia.

"This is a serious scandal," von Cramon said on Twitter. "In the midst of raging war, (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Serbia signs the plan on future collaboration with the aggressor."

Von Cramon added that "maybe it's just a signal for us to freeze the EU accession talks as entering the EU does not go through Moscow."

Another European Parliament member, Vladimir Bilcik from Slovakia, described the agreement with Russia as a "serious blow" to the accession process in the Western Balkans.