LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting European Union and NATO-member Slovenia this weekend, signaling a bid to maintain ties amid simmering tensions between the Kremlin and the two Western-led blocs.
Slovenia, a small Alpine nation where U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's wife Melania was born and grew up, has kept friendly relations with Russia even as it joined EU sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.
Still, Slovenia has been careful to portray Putin's visit on Saturday as strictly informal — officially Putin is coming to attend a World War I memorial — and not contrary to the official EU policy of sanctions against Moscow.
Slovenian President Boris Pahor told Russia's TASS agency the visit is designed to build trust and dialogue.
"(It) pays respect to the traditional friendship of Slovenia and Russia, despite some differences in the two countries' relations over their positions on certain pressing issues," Pahor said in comments published Friday by Slovenia's official STA news agency.
Slovenia, a country of 2 million people, became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. It joined NATO and the EU in 2004.
The United States and the 28-nation EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its 2014 military takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions have cut Russia's access to global financial markets and blocked the transfer of key technologies. Russia has retaliated by banning most Western food imports, badly hurting many EU nations, including Slovenia.
Tensions with NATO also have been heightened with Russia's increased military activity in Eastern Europe and NATO's reinforcement of troops in the region.
Trump, whose wife Melania was born in the town of Sevnica while Slovenia was still part of Communist-run Yugoslavia, has sided with Putin on a wide range of issues, including saying that, if elected, he would consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and would not necessarily back NATO members if Putin decided to invade.
Putin has not openly backed Trump and the Kremlin denies reports that it is interfering in the U.S. electoral process.
While in Slovenia — his only third visit to an EU-member country this year — Putin will attend a commemoration of the centenary of a chapel in the Julian Alps, which was erected in the memory of dozens of Russian WWI prisoners of war who died in an avalanche while building a mountain pass for the Austrian army.
The annual event, seen as a symbol of friendship between Slovenia and Russia, was attended last year by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Putin will also unveil a memorial to Russian soldiers who died in World War II at the main cemetery in Ljubljana, the capital, and meet Slovenian officials.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the visit will also include talks "on bilateral issues and business ties."
Slovenia's economic ties with Moscow date back to the Yugoslav era and Russia is Slovenia's top non-EU trading partner. But the trade between the two has dropped by nearly 30 percent since the Western sanctions were introduced.
Putin's visit has angered Ukrainians living in Slovenia, who have announced protests. The Kiev ambassador to Slovenia, Mykhailo Brodovych, said he saw Putin's visit as "negative."
"These commemorative events are just a pretext for Putin to demonstrate that he is normally accepted in the country that is a member of the EU and NATO," Brodovych wrote on his web page.
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.