NIS: Showing off tents, lifeboats and other rescue equipment at the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre, co-director 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 told AFP 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 recognise 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. 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.
Published in Daily Times, July 12th , 2017.