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News 11 Sep 17

Russian Centre in Serbia Scorns Espionage Claims

The do-director of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in Nis, Vjaceslav Vlasenko, has denied accusations that it operates a military or espionage base for Russia in the Balkans.

Maja Zivanovic

The do-director of the controversial Russian Humanitarian Centre in Nis has told BIRN that claims that it could operate as a "military base" are nonsense, adding that the centre's request for its staff to obtain diplomatic status is “an internal matter for Serbia”.

“If the staff at the centre had diplomatic status, there would be no need to pay a lot of taxes on the import of equipment that the centre gives for Serbia to use,” Vlasenko explained, noting the potential benefits of such an arrangement.

Among the other benefits of diplomatic status for the centre, he cited taxes on salaries for the staff, the cost of utilities and fuel, and other matters. “These are technical issues, but they are very important,” he added.

Under the terms of the 2012 Law on Establishing the Centre, staff of the centre should enjoy the same legal status as the administrative and technical staff at the Russian embassy – who enjoy exemption from the payment of some taxes.

The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre insists that it exists only to provide “emergency humanitarian responses, [help] prevent natural disasters and [address] technological accidents and the elimination of their consequences”.

But some Western governments have voiced deep unhappiness about its work and existence, fearing that it has other purposes, linked to Russia's expanionist foreign policy in the Balkans. The US in particular has said it fears the centre could be used for espionage purposes.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Brian Yee told the US Senate on June 15 that the centre was a matter of concern for Washington because of what it could become, especially if Serbia met Russia’s request to award the centre's staff special status and diplomatic immunity.

But Vlasenko said the whole matter was up to Serbia, not America. “When the center was founded no one thought about its diplomatic status. It is strictly an internal Serbian matter whether it assigns this status [for the centre] or not,” Vlasenko said.

He also noted that similar questions about spying might well be addressed to the US, which has a large military base at Bondsteel, in Kosovo, around 250 kilometers from Nis, that covers a large amount of territory, with military facilities and buildings, and landing ground.

“How many workers are in this ‘spy nest’?" he asked, referring back to the centre in Nis.

"There are three to six people from Russia. Three work in the administration and three are professional rescuers who come on the basis of rotation, once each three months, from [Russia's] Ministry of Emergency Situations. They take part in training. Can three Russians build a military base?” Vlasenko inquired.

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