Serbia's foreign minister is urging his country's lawmakers to grant diplomatic status to the Russian staff of a controversial facility that some consider a spy base but Moscow insists is a disaster relief center.
As Gazette reported, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told the pro-government Politika daily on Friday that the upgraded status for the center in the central Serbian town of Nis "needs to be solved, one way or another."
"I have special responsibility because (Russian Defense Minister) Sergey Shoigu and I formed that center," said Dacic, who is known for his pro-Russian stance.
Some military analysts say the Russians are eavesdropping on American military interests in the Balkans from the so-called "Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center." Russia denies that.
"Western countries have their objections, although they received the same (protected status) through agreements with Serbia," Dacic said. "What then is the problem with the center in Nis, which is not even military but civilian and humanitarian?"
Dacic said the unresolved status of the Russian staff in the base near an airport in Nis has been causing problems for its functioning since it opened in 2011.
European Union officials have said that if Serbia wants to become a member of the bloc, as it formally wants to, it will have to join the EU's emergency relief programs and ditch the Russian ones.
The Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations is a partner in the Nis center. The powerful semi-military outfit's activities do include disaster relief, but the agency also carries out jobs for Russia's security services. The ministry has long played a role in Serbia, including de-mining and clearing unexploded ordnance from the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.
Under Serbia's current populist leadership, the Balkan nation has been boosting military and other ties with its traditional ally, Russia. The Kremlin has promised to supply the Serbian military with fighter jets, battle tanks and anti-aircraft systems, something that could raise tensions in the war-weary region.