Last year was a year of mask diplomacy, and 2021 is becoming a year of vaccine diplomacy. While the EU is struggling to procure and roll over the vaccines it needs for its citizens, Great Britain and Serbia (European countries, but non-EU members), are European leaders of vaccination.
The benefits of vaccine diplomacy for Belgrade, Vucic and Beijing
Many wondered how Serbia is at the very top of the world in terms of the number of vaccinated citizens, which surprised not only the international public but also the citizens of Serbia. Supported by two world powers, China and Russia, Serbia today positions itself as the leader of the Western Balkans region. Authorities in Serbia today are implementing an open-door vaccine policy rather than shipping the vaccines abroad so that Belgrade can be established as a regional center where all citizens of the region will be able to come and get vaccinated. In this way, vaccine tourism is established, since all those who come to receive the first dose of the vaccine will have to return to Belgrade for revaccination. Some will decide to extend their stay in Serbia and so, with the relaxing of social contact rules, Belgrade will become a tourist center of the region. In this way, Serbia has not only shown humanity by enabling foreigners to come and be vaccinated but has also achieved enormous diplomatic success regionally and beyond. Success with vaccine procurement and the vaccination process has brought President Vucic a significant political boost ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
Serbia has so far procured mostly Chinese Sinopharm vaccines (2 million doses), followed by about 100,000 Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V. This is a unique example that in one country citizens can choose between several manufacturers while in the Western Balkans they have almost no vaccines at all. The purchase of vaccines from several manufacturers from the East and the West is a continuation of Vučić's foreign policy of sitting on several chairs, which in this case paid off. Today, the citizens of Serbia choose the vaccine according to their foreign policy orientation.
The provision of vaccines to more than two million Serbian citizens while the countries of the region are still in the process of procurement has also increased Aleksandar Vucic's foreign policy rating due to his close ties with China and Russia. At the same time, while the EU has not coped with this crisis or managed to provide vaccines for the Western Balkans, Serbia's success is seen as even greater than it is.
However, the main question that arises today is what is the cost of the vaccines, which, so far, hasn’t been made public. There’s growing speculation that Serbia will award China even more massive infrastructure projects such as those regarding the sewage systems, waste treatment and landfill in dozens of municipalities across Serbia which China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) has already secured secured. In that case, in the long run, the citizens of Serbia may have to pay a high price for what we see today as a success in the procurement of Chinese vaccines. This positioning of China in Serbia and the strengthening of Serbian-Chinese relations may jeopardize the democratic development of Serbia and its European path. However, this is a win-win situation for both the President of Serbia and China - China is strengthening its influence in Serbia and the Balkans, which it sees as a lobby of Europe, and Vucic in turn receives support for his authoritarian rule.
Moreover, President Vucic announced the construction of a factory for the production of Sinopharm vaccines in Serbia, which will be financed by China and the UAE. There was also an announcement that the Russian Sputnik V vaccine will be produced at the Serbian Torlak Institute. Viewed in this way, Serbia will become the main producer and exporter of vaccines to those European countries that will approve the use of Chinese and Russian vaccines. By bringing Serbia closer to China and Russia throughout the corona crisis, Vucic is also trying to increase his influence in the EU so that the EU can do more for Serbia and thus prevent the building of close ties between Serbia and China.
With an absent EU, the Western Balkans may be tempted to turn to Belgrade and to the East
With its indefinite foreign policy, Serbia has managed to get the most from all sides, from Russia, China, the UAE, but also from the EU. The success of this approach can be seen in the fact that the Serbian authorities are giving up on European integration due to the inability to implement necessary reforms. At this moment, the process of European integration of Serbia is in a status quo where neither Vučić would be satisfied if Serbia would part of the EU tomorrow, nor is the EU ready to receive Serbia tomorrow. By procuring vaccines without EU assistance, Serbian authorities have further shaken confidence in the EU and its crisis management capacity. Although the EU decided to allocate $ 3.3 billion in pandemic-related financial assistance to the Western Balkans, the Serbian government’s reaction was muted when compared to the reaction for Chinese and Russian assistance. Such an approach of the Serbian authorities had an impact on the creation of narratives in the public, where China and Russia are praised for helping Serbia, while the EU is again marginalized. In a survey by the Belgrade Security Policy Center, some 75 percent of respondents thought China helped Serbia the most while just 3 percent thought it was the EU that did so.
Other countries in the Western Balkans, which have relied solely on EU assistance and solidarity, have been left disappointed, thus possibly further undermining the EU's credibility in those countries. In contrast, Serbia, despite its desire to become part of the EU, opted for a different approach and thus became the first European country to approve China's Sinopharm vaccine. Serbia then used the shortages as an opportunity to donate vaccines across the region and invite people for vaccinations in Belgrade. These donations were rather symbolic, but the symbol of unity in severe crises has great power. With this, Serbia has set itself not only as a regional leader, but has also replaced the EU in its role as a donor. Today's positioning of Serbia in the Western Balkans may have an impact in the future as well, where the region would increasingly rely on Belgrade and the Serbian authorities' ties with the great powers instead of relying on the EU.
On February 14, the Serbian president personally delivered 4,680 doses to North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at the border, as North Macedonia was waiting for a shipment from Bulgaria, which never came. Later in February, Serbia sent 2,000 jabs to Montenegro. Although there had been tensions between Belgrade and Podgorica in the past few years, the new Montenegrin government gladly accepted the shipment. In early March, Vučić travelled with 5,000 vaccines to Sarajevo. At the airport, he was greeted by members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, Željko Komšić and Šefik Džaferović. By this Serbia has become some sort of a regional lifeboat. By dispatching a small vaccine shipment, China has improved the political fortunes of the Serbian president and possibly secured a major electoral victory for Vucic in next year’s elections. But this vaccine diplomacy may increasingly endanger Serbia’s democratic future.
Although the countries of the Western Balkans have been waiting for vaccines from the EU, today they are following the example of Serbia. Montenegro and North Macedonia have ordered both Chinese and Russian vaccines to tackle health crises in their countries. Moreover, EU members have started to follow the example of Serbia, so today Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Italy are considering or have already ordered Russian and Chinese vaccines, regardless of whether they have been approved by the European Medicines Agency.
The EU’s allure is based on its success and its ability to deliver wellness to its citizens. People from outside the block want to join it because they expect a share of its benefits – and they closer they get (for instance by implementing the reforms asked by Brussels) the more they expect to see some results. Vaccine diplomacy, if used skillfully, may undermine that image and those expectations. A few thousand, or even tens of thousands of Chinese or Russian vaccines delivered by Belgrade would not change much in a Western Balkans country with much higher needs. But still, they are better than nothing. And they make the news.