A U.S. senator visiting Belgrade has urged Serbia not to grant diplomatic status to the staff of a Russian disaster-relief center that some Western officials suspect harbors spies and disseminates propaganda.
"I am hoping that President [Aleksandar] Vucic and Serbia resist any attempt to offer immunity" to the staff of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center, Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said on August 29.
"I think that'd send a very bad signal. It would surely not be in the best interest of the people of Serbia in terms of the Western flow of capital to help build your economy," he said.
For Serbia to benefit from an economic infusion from the West, Johnson said, "you need as little corruption as possible and you also need an indication that a country is really leaning toward Western democracies and free-market capitalism, and leaning against the type of aggression that, unfortunately, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is demonstrating with Russia currently."
Johnson made his remarks after meeting with Vucic, who has cultivated close ties with Russia while at the same time seeking European Union membership.
Vucic did not say what his intentions were toward the Russian center, where staff has sought the same diplomatic-immunity status as NATO staff have in Serbia.
"We are making decisions in accordance with our interests," Vucic said, adding that "we have not been exposed to any sort of aggression."
Moscow has denied housing spies or conducting political activities at the center, which opened in 2012 in the southern city of Nis. The center has helped Serbia with de-mining and clearing unexploded ordnance from the 1999 NATO bombing of the country.
But the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, Hoyt Brian Yee, said in May that the center might have ulterior motives such as influencing public opinion in the Balkans.
Johnson argued that Russia's activities in the Balkans had become increasingly divisive. Rather than becoming a "friendly rival" after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia had turned into an "unfriendly adversary," he said.
"I think America stands ready for Russia to become that friendly rival, but it's going to be up to Vladimir Putin and Russia to make that decision," Johnson said.
"I think America, I think the West, has to respond with strength and resolve ourselves so that Vladimir Putin understands that we will stand up to his bullying, to his aggression, which is in nobody's best interest."