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US Sees Russia's 'Humanitarian Center' in Serbia as Spy Outpost

  • Milena Djurdjic

FILE - Viktor Safyanov, co-director of the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center, poses for a picture in Nis, Serbia, Nov. 18, 2014. Some Western groups and military analysts see the center as a subtly disguised military base set up by the Kremlin.

The United States has expressed concern about a disaster relief center Russia is operating in Serbia, which some Western groups and military analysts see as a subtly disguised military base set up by the Kremlin to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.

The U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, discussed "the so-called humanitarian center" in Serbia recently with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Yee said the United States was concerned about the Russian base in Niš, close to Serbia's border with Kosovo, "not so much for 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, a protected diplomatic status or immunity."

Addressing a Senate hearing last Wednesday on malign foreign influences in southeastern Europe, Yee said, "We don't believe Russia has good intentions from our standpoint, in our context, which is trying to help the Balkans move close to its goal of integration with Europe."

"We believe Russia is trying to prevent that path," Yee said, answering a question from Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.

FILE - A worker prepares a new statue of Russia's last Czar, Nicholas II, in downtown Belgrade, Serbia, Oct. 13, 2014. Moscow has been slowly losing its clout in Eastern Europe, as countries have joined NATO and the EU.
FILE - A worker prepares a new statue of Russia's last Czar, Nicholas II, in downtown Belgrade, Serbia, Oct. 13, 2014. Moscow has been slowly losing its clout in Eastern Europe, as countries have joined NATO and the EU.

The U.S. and the European Union have spent years working to bring an enduring peace to the Balkans, and to integrate the region into the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. Every country around Serbia is currently either in NATO or wants to join the Western alliance.

The Russian center in Niš, opened in 2012 near an airport, is relatively close to the 4,000-member NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, the former province of Serbia that declared its independence in 2008. International troops stationed in Kosovo include 600 Americans.

The concerns about the Russian installation in Serbia is that it could become an outpost for Kremlin spies and, in effect, a command center for Russia's disruptive response to EU enlargement and NATO's expansion in the region. Russia has always supported Serbia's refusal to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.

Serbian control

The State Department's Yee said the United States opposes granting diplomatic status or its equivalent to Russians based in Niš.

"We believe it's important," Yee testified Wednesday, "and we share this with the government of Serbia, that Serbia has the full control of its territory and facilities on its territory. If it allows Russia to create some kind of a special center for espionage or other nefarious activities, it will lose control over part of its territory."

Russia has denied it wants to create a military installation in Serbia.

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have taken a bipartisan approach in their opposition to Russia's efforts to strengthen its influence in the Balkans.

FILE - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is pictured on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2017.
FILE - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is pictured on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2017.

Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, told VOA's Serbian service that he thought Moscow had been "doing everything in its power to destabilize the nations in the region and prevent them" from taking more pro-Western positions.

Johnson pointed to Montenegro, NATO's newest member and one of the former Yugoslav republics that border Kosovo, as an example of Russian interference.

Coup plot

Prosecutors in Podgorica have accused Russia and its agents of funding a coup plot that was to have been carried out last October, on Montenegro's election day. The plotters allegedly intended to kill Prime Minister Milo Đukanović in order to derail the small Balkan nation's bid to join the Western alliance.

Twenty suspects linked to the coup plot were arrested last year on election eve. Western powers and intelligence agencies have said Russia's involvement in the attempt to overthrow Montenegro's government was clear, and even Đukanović, a socialist who stepped down as prime minister 10 days after the election, said there was "a strong connection of a foreign factor" in the country's political developments. The Kremlin has denied all such accusations as "absurd."

FILE - Montenegrin police officers escort a suspect in Podgorica, Oct. 16, 2016. In all, 20 suspects linked to a coup plot aimed at derailing the Balkan nation's bid to join NATO were arrested ahead of Montenegrin elections.
FILE - Montenegrin police officers escort a suspect in Podgorica, Oct. 16, 2016. In all, 20 suspects linked to a coup plot aimed at derailing the Balkan nation's bid to join NATO were arrested ahead of Montenegrin elections.

Prosecutors in the Montenegrin capital said Russia "did far more than interfere" in elections. If Moscow's plan had succeeded, they said, it would have been "an act of war."

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe and regional security cooperation, said the United States and the EU must pay closer attention to the Balkan nations.

"We've got a great opportunity to integrate those nations into the EU and Western democracies," Johnson said. "If we don't show leadership, if we don't pay attention, they could just as easily slip under Russia's domination."

Sanctions vote

The Wisconsin lawmaker was one of 98 senators who voted this week to reinforce and extend U.S. sanctions against Russia. He and Murphy testified this week that they expected sharp budget cuts planned for the State Department would be set aside before any final agreement on a U.S. spending plan was reached.

"We've got to send a very clear signal to Russia that they cannot continue down this path of their aggression, their efforts of destabilizing, interfering in democratic elections around the world, including here in America," Johnson said.

This report originated in VOA's Serbian Service.

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