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Russian Presence in Nis Doesn’t Seem Military -- Croatian journalist

Drago Hedl

The Russian-Serbian humanitarian center located at Nis airport, subject of speculation that it is a covert Russian military base, does not seem to have any military aspect, says a journalist who visited there.

Drago Hedl, a journalist for Croatia’s “Jutarnji List,” visited the center, about 249 km south of Belgrade, and told RFE/RL that it is not a military base but, depending on developments, it could easily be transformed into one. Here is an interview with RFE/RL on his visit there:

RFE/RL: Mr. Hedl, what were you doing at this Russian center in Nis?

Hedl: I was in Belgrade … when Russian President Putin came for a visit and when they were talking about signing an agreement that would grant diplomatic status to all staff members of the Russian base. That caused great anxiety is certain Western circles and inspiredme to go to Nis and see what is actually going on there. My colleagues from Belgrade told me that it is not a military base, as certain Western media had reported, but a humanitarian center located there to help in situations such as floods, fires, earthquakes and similar natural catastrophes.

RFE/RL: What did you find when you arrived?

Hedl: I had asked for permission to enter the base to see what is going on there. The answer was yes, which surprised me, but I was especially surprised when I saw how easy it is to reach this Russian-Serbian humanitarian center. It is at one of Nis’s “Konstantin Veliki” airport and has no fences, ramps or guards. So I went in with my own car that has Croatian license plates and I was welcomed by some members of the center. Among them was Anatoly Bashkirev, deputy director of the Russian-Serbian humanitarian center who showed me everything I wanted to see. A photojournalist who came with me had a chance to shoot everything and we did a story that completely disproved all those who thought that this is some kind of a military base.

RFE/RL: If this is only a humanitarian center, why are they talking about diplomatic status?

Hedl: Ten days ago I talked about it with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic and asked him directly: why are they insisting on signing this agreement? He told me that this agreement had not been signed. I suppose it was because ofpressure from the West or the European Union, because as we all know Serbia is aiming to become a member of the European Union. Therefore, this agreement between Serbia and Russia was not signed. Dacic explained that this is not Serbia’s priority at the moment and that certain technical details have to be agreed upon. So it seems to me that Serbia made a step not to spoil its relations with Brussels and to maintain good relations with Russia at the same time. This is why this agreement was not signed and I’m sure that this helped Serbia to remain on its EU path.

RFE/RL: Did anyone from the Russian or Serbian side explain why staff of the humanitarian center would need diplomatic status?

Hedl: I didn’t talk about it with anyone in the center. I only talked, as I already said, with Mr.Dacicwho, while he was still prime minister, signed an agreement with the Russians to set up a humanitarian center in Nis. Of course, this is not a burning issue only in the EU, but in Belgrade as well. I talked to many journalists who were also skeptical about the real use of this center. It is generally considered that this is only a tool to formalize the Russian presence in Serbia.

From what I have seen there, we cannot talk about any kind of military base, but the question is whether this center can be used for such purposes at any point which may depend heavily on the developments in the Serbian attempt to join the EU or to turn to Russia. Because we see that some recent events, such as president Putin’s visit to Belgrade, the military parade with Russian airplanes, and a recent joint military training of the Russian and Serbian forces on the EU border--better said on the Croatian border--indicate that this center, whichis currently really humanitarian, could become a military base in a moment.

RFE/RL: Russian humanitarians were the first ones to help the population deal with the floods, especially in Obrenovac?

Hedl: They explained to me in the humanitarian center how important the base is to being able toreact very quickly. In fact, from the moment Serbian Prime Minister [Aleksandar] Vucic asked the Russians to help with the floods that hit Serbia [in May], the Russians were ready to go in a day. The next day they were already in Obrenovac and that was possible thanks to their being situated in Nis. Otherwise, that wouldn’t be possible given the fact that huge amounts of material and resources had to be brought in… However, what was particularly interesting to hear was that they were willing to provide this assistance to the other countries in the region and they told me that they already had intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia, where they brought generators for electricity at the time when Slovenia was hit by winter storms. And they also helped in the forest fires in Bosnia last year. When I asked them if there is a possibility of intervening in Croatia if a fire breaks out on the Adriatic, they said that it was possible, but that it is necessary to formalize some sort of two-state protocols or agreements.

RFE/RL: Do Slovenia and Bosnia have such agreements with the Russian side?

Hedl: Bosnia and Slovenia have no such agreements, but I was told that they are working on that. But when I asked whether this means that, in some particularly dramatic situation, Croatia could count on Russian help, they told me that this was possible even without the agreement but that everything would work much easier if there was a protocol between Moscow and Zagreb. There is already a small Croatian crew in the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis training members of the center how to use a robotic fire extinguishing vehicle that was produced in Croatia and that extinguishes the fire by sending a robot directly to the fire site so that people don’t get hurt by gases, radiation or something else. They have more Croatian machines there in Nis and they are very satisfied with them so they were happy to show them to me.

RFE/RL: Did they tell you how big an investment this center is?

Hedl: We didn’t talk about that. But from what one can see there, it is about twenty vehicles and a lot of fire equipment. Those are certainly not small or insignificant amounts. When I asked how the center was funded, they told me that is regulated by the protocol between Serbia and Russia and that both parties are financing it. I don’t know in what proportions and I don’t know its total price.I was also unable to find out the exact number of people working in the center, although colleagues from Belgrade told me that this wasn’t any kind of a military secret. They told me that there is a very small number of Russians there, around twenty, at the time when there are no interventions. That number increases when there is a natural disaster such as floods or fires.

RFE/RL: Do the vehicles in the center have Serbian or Russian registration plates?

Hedl: They have registration plates from Nis, although they have some Russian inscriptions as well. Besides the firefighting vehicles, they have some Lada or Niva cars, I don’t know exactly how many, but they all have Serbian registration plates.

RFE/RL: What were your final impressions and conclusions?

Hedl: I became convinced that there are no hidden things there because I saw everything I wanted to see except, of course, if those other things weren’t on another site that I did not have a chance to see.There are no military components at that airport. Everything is focused on humanitarian activity, but, as I said before, there is always a possibility that at some time, if political circumstances change, this center is easily converted into a base with a completely different purpose.