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Vladimir Putin gets lavish welcome on visit to ally Serbia

Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Serbia in a show of support for the Balkan country's populist leader and his pro-Moscow policies.

Putin landed at Belgrade airport on Thursday after his presidential plane was escorted over Serbian airspace by MiG-29 fighter jets he recently donated to Serbia.

Serbia has maintained close links with the traditional Slavic ally even as the country formally seeks European Union membership. Belgrade has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and has pledged to stay out of NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's plane on its final approach before landing at the Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport, Serbia, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Putin arrives in Serbia on Thursday for his fourth visit to the Balkan country since 2001. (AP PhotoDarko Vojinovic)

The relations have recently been further boosted after Putin stepped up efforts to restore Moscow's influence in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Putin's visit comes as thousands have held weekly demonstrations against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic because of what they see as autocratic rule.