“Three times a week at 6:30 a.m., Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic sits down for his Russian class. The aim, he says, is to be able to chat as fluently with Vladimir Putin as he does with western leaders in English.

The desire for language parity reflects the traditional geopolitical balancing act by Serbia, a country historically and culturally pulled both east and west. With European Union membership still years away, Vucic is fostering ties with Russia while courting money from China for industrial and infrastructure projects.

The tug-of-war between eastern and western powers is not a novelty in a strategic corner of the continent torn apart in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s. But with relations with Russia at their chilliest since the Cold War, there’s greater urgency for the EU to ensure Serbia and five other Balkan nations end up in the bloc’s fold and help pursue its expansion eastward.

EU leaders meet this week with their western Balkan counterparts in Bulgaria, which joined the bloc in 2007, to show they’re serious about their pledge to start taking in new members around 2025. The focus will be on talking up the next phase of the European project after former communist countries like Poland and Hungary clashed recently with Brussels over their control of the courts, media and other democratic institutions.” (Bloomberg)