Ceremonial canons fired and church bells pealed in Belgrade on Thursday as President Vladimir Putin arrived to a rousing welcome in Serbia, a key Moscow ally, where he will confer Russia’s top award to his counterpart.
Tens of thousands of Serbs marched through the capital in a parade in Putin’s honor.
The parade, whose participants come from across Serbia, will culminate at the massive Saint Sava church, one of Orthodox Christianity’s largest houses of worship.
In recent days vendors have been selling T-shirts, mugs and books bearing Putin’s face, while a central Belgrade fountain has been lit up with the red, white and blue colors of the Russian flag.
Although Serbia aspires to join the European Union, it has kept up close ties with Russia, its historical “Orthodox big brother” whose people also share Slavic origins.
According to a 2017 Serbian government survey, a quarter of the population believe Russia and the EU are the country’s joint top donors for development aid.