Russian officials inaugurated a "humanitarian centre" yesterday (17 October) in the Serbian city of Niš, situated 100 km from the Kosovo border, but denied suggestions that Moscow was in fact setting up a military base. The development took place days after the European Commission dampened Serbia's EU accession hopes.
Speaking at the ceremony in Niš, Southern Serbia, Serbian First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Ivica Da?i? and Minister for Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation Sergei Shoigu pointed out that the opening of the "Regional humanitarian centre" would contribute to more efficient emergency response, not only in the Balkans but also throughout Europe.
Da?i? and Shoigu signed the documents that will allow for the deployment of this centre. Some 35 tonnes of aid for the humanitarian centre were brought yesterday with an airplane of the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations.
The aid includes tents, blankets and power generators that will be handed over to the warehouse of the joint centre for the prevention and elimination of consequences of emergency situations.
Aid for 'disaster zones'
The development appears to make concrete to an initiative launched in October 2009 by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As EurActiv reported at the time, Medvedev visited Serbia in the context of tensions over the recognition by Macedonia of Kosovo and the settling of the border dispute between Skopje and Pristina. On this occasion, Russia announced plans to open "a base at Niš airport […] for rapid delivery of Russian and Serbian rescuers to disaster zones".
When asked by a journalist whether the facility was in fact a military base, Da?i? rejected the allegation.
"Nobody has the right to give us lessons about whom we will cooperate, this is an independent country," said Da?i?, quoted by BETA, EurActiv's partner in Serbia.
The Russian minister Shoigu also said that allegations his country was setting up a military base in Serbia were "pure fabrication".
Agencies suggested that the Russian facility in Niš could be designed to spy on a US base in Romania which will be part of the US missile shield. However, this base, located at Deveselu near the Danube, is at some 200 km air distance from Niš. On the other hand, the new facility is much closer to the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where inter-community tensions are persistent.
EU report a major disappointment for Serbia
The inauguration of the "humanitarian base" in Niš took place less than a week after Belgrade experienced a major disappointment from the latest Commission report on its progress towards EU accession. In spite of the fact that Serbia arrested and handed over to the Hague the last two war crime fugitives, Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži?, it was not given a date for starting accession negotiations.
According to analysts, the nationalist political parties in Serbia now have a free hand to effectively use the situation in the north of Kosovo against the ruling, so-called "pro-European" coalition.
These parties can now easily incite protests, aggravate the tensions and begin to accuse the government of betraying Serbian interests and losing Kosovo, ahead of the elections scheduled for spring 2012.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers.
However, the Serbian-populated northern part of Kosovo (the area of Mitrovica) remains largely outside the control of Pristina.
Most EU countries, except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia, have recognised the independence of Kosovo. Of all UN members, 76 have recognised Kosovo so far.
Russia in particular has been Serbia's strongest ally in rejecting attempts to treat Kosovo as an independent entity.
- BETA, the EurActiv partner agency in Serbia: Otvoren Srpsko-ruski humanitarni centar
- Washington Post: Russia opens center in Serbia, denies it will spy on US facility in Romania
- The Voice of Russia: Russia, Serbia to open emergency center
- AP: Russia denies new facility in Serbia is for spying
- EM Portal, Serbia:RF emergency airplane brings 35 tons of relief supplies to Serbia