Rus­sian aid cen­tre in Ser­bia re­buffs spy fears

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Show­ing off tents, lifeboats and other res­cue equip­ment at the Rus­sian-Ser­bian Hu­man­i­tar­ian Cen­tre, codi­rec­tor Vi­ach­eslav Vlasenko laughs at Western sus­pi­cions that his work­place is a front for a spy op­er­a­tion. “We are very open here,” the cor­dial 70-year-old Rus­sian said at the base in the strate­gi­cally-lo­cated town of Nis in south­ern Ser­bia-not far from Kosovo with a large NATO-led peace­keep­ing force. Vlasenko listed all the crises in the Balkans that he says his team has helped to tackle, in­clud­ing for­est fires, ma­jor floods and the huge in­flux of mi­grants across the re­gion in 2015.

“We are not politi­cians, we are ful­fill­ing our mis­sion, I hope in a good way,” he said. The cen­tre was set up on the ba­sis of a 2012 agree­ment be­tween Rus­sia and Ser­bia, with the stated aim of pro­vid­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance and train­ing for emer­gen­cies in the Balkans. But since its in­cep­tion, the project has sparked con­cerns among Western of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts that Moscow has un­der­hand in­ten­tions of us­ing it for es­pi­onage or as a so-called lily pad-an out­wardly low-key ad­vance base for mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in the re­gion.

Rus­sia’s as-yet-un­granted re­quest for the cen­tre and its staff to have diplo­matic im­mu­nity has only height­ened the sus­pi­cions, although Vlasenko in­sisted that the re­quest had been made sim­ply to re­duce taxes. “You have seen now each corner of our cen­tre,” he said af­ter giv­ing a tour of the build­ing. “Is it pos­si­ble to use it for mil­i­tary (pur­poses)? It’s non­sense.”

Rus­sia is of­ten per­ceived as a big brother fig­ure to Ser­bia, a fel­low Slavic and Or­tho­dox Chris­tian na­tion. Moscow backs Bel­grade, for ex­am­ple, in re­fus­ing to rec­og­nize the in­de­pen­dence of Kosovo, a for­mer Ser­bian prov­ince. As Ser­bia and other Balkan coun­tries pur­sue Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship, how­ever, Rus­sia has stepped up ef­forts to boost its re­gional in­flu­ence.

Balkan chess­board

Last month Mon­tene­gro joined NATO-to Moscow’s anger-ef­fec­tively com­plet­ing the Western al­liance’s con­trol of the Adri­atic coast. Al­ba­nia and Croa­tia have been mem­bers since 2009. The devel­op­ment came sev­eral months af­ter an al­leged at­tempt to over­throw the govern­ment in Pod­gor­ica, a murky af­fair in which Mon­tene­grin pros­e­cu­tors said “Rus­sian state bod­ies” were in­volved with the aim of pre­vent­ing NATO ac­ces­sion. Moscow de­nies the ac­cu­sa­tions.

The EU’s for­eign pol­icy chief Fed­er­ica Mogherini warned in March, when asked about Rus­sia’s role in the re­gion, that the Balkans “can eas­ily be­come one of the chess­boards where the big power game can be played”. There is lit­tle on dis­play to sug­gest dodgy ac­tiv­i­ties at the quiet cen­tre in Nis, where a cou­ple of cheer­ful men in uni­form-on three-month ro­ta­tions from Rus­sia’s Min­istry of Emer­gency Sit­u­a­tions (EMERCOM) — tick off check­lists of res­cue equip­ment.

Screens in a small cri­sis op­er­a­tions room show satel­lite im­ages that can pick up fires and project flood pat­terns. The cen­tre, which cost more than $40 mil­lion (35 mil­lion eu­ros) to set up, cur­rently has five Rus­sian and 15 Ser­bian staff mem­bers, in­clud­ing in­ter­preters and tech­ni­cians, Vlasenko said. In a ma­jor emer­gency EMERCOM sends in re­lief teams and air­craft, he added.

Ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties

At a US Se­nate hear­ing last month on “Strength­en­ing Democ­racy and Coun­ter­ing Ma­lign For­eign In­flu­ence” in south­east Europe, US Deputy As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Hoyt Brian Yee ex­pressed con­cerns over “this so-called hu­man­i­tar­ian cen­tre”. He feared “not so much what it is now, but what it might be­come if it re­ceives what Rus­sia has been ask­ing from Ser­bia, which is some kind of spe­cial sta­tus to pro­tect it, diplo­matic sta­tus or other im­mu­nity”. Yee noted the cen­tre’s prox­im­ity to the bor­der with Kosovo.

“If (Ser­bia) al­lows Rus­sia to cre­ate some kind of spe­cial cen­tre for es­pi­onage or other ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties it will lose con­trol over part of its ter­ri­tory,” the se­nior US of­fi­cial said. Spy­ing plans or not, the project is aid­ing Rus­sia’s drive to win hearts and minds in the re­gion. Cer­tifi­cates of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for its aid in times of cri­sis line the en­trance foyer. The cen­tre has also helped to clear ex­plo­sives re­main­ing from NATO’s bomb­ing of Ser­bia in 1999 dur­ing the Kosovo war, an episode that still fu­els deep skep­ti­cism to­wards NATO among Serbs. Opin­ion polls in Ser­bia reg­u­larly show more fa­vor­able views of Rus­sia than the EU-even though Euro­pean fund­ing far out­weighs that from Moscow.

And Bel­grade re­fused to join Europe in im­pos­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia over the Ukraine cri­sis. Ser­bian author­i­ties have taken a cau­tious wait-and-see at­ti­tude to­wards grant­ing the cen­tre im­mu­nity-some have spo­ken in fa­vor, but the coun­try’s strong­man, Pres­i­dent Alek­san­dar Vu­cic, has so far re­sisted it. The con­tro­versy is sym­bolic of the “real mis­trust” be­tween Rus­sia and the West, ac­cord­ing to Alek­san­dra Jok­si­movic, head of the Cen­tre for For­eign Pol­icy, a Bel­grade-based non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion. “I think Ser­bia is closely watch­ing how not to cross red lines on one side or the other,” she said.—AFP

NIS: A pic­ture shows co-di­rec­tor of the Rus­sian-Ser­bian Hu­man­i­tar­ian Cen­tre (RSHC) Vi­ach­eslav Vlasenko pre­sent­ing the satel­lite weather mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem, in the south­ern Ser­bian town of Nis.—AFP

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