The mismanagement of vaccine procurement has undermined confidence in Brussels in both EU member states and EU candidates. Third parties – especially China and Russia – use this in the geostrategic power play to strengthen their own influence.
More and more states in the region are now relying on direct negotiations with producers and concluding supply contracts with China and Russia. Because although almost all the Western Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo – have already paid for the vaccine deliveries they have been promised through the Covax program of the World Health Organization (WHO), some are smaller countries such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina or North Macedonia has only been supplied with a minimal number of western vaccine doses.
Serbia, on the other hand, has become a pioneer in the region in fighting pandemics after the virus was initially played down in the country.
For many Serbs, the memorable press conference of the Serbian government and its president in February 2020, when a government medical advisor described the coronavirus as the “funniest virus in history” and advised Serbian women to travel to hard-hit Italy right now, remains unforgettable for many Serbs
The re are currently decent discounts on many products and women are protected by the increased estrogen level anyway. Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar announced that this virus was “much weaker” than the normal flu.
Thank you, brother Xi!
Less than two weeks later, the government switched from amusement to panic mode, and the toughest measures in Europe in the fight against the virus were imposed. Since then, Serbia has been moving in the interplay of easing and renewed tightening. However, since vaccines became available, the tide has visibly turned.
The first vaccinations of doctors and nurses with the Biontech / Pfizer serum began in the country before Christmas – Prime Minister Ana Brnabić received the first vaccination. At the beginning of January, Russophile politicians like Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin let themselves be and the chairman of parliament Ivica Dačić were the first to vaccinate with the Russian serum Sputnik V. While the Russian vaccine was initially difficult to obtain in Serbia in January, that has now changed: tens of thousands of doses have now arrived.
After a transport plane from Beijing with a million Sinopharm cans on board landed in Belgrade in mid-January, the mass vaccinations finally got going on January 19. So far, around 800,000 people have received the first vaccination. Thanks to the Chinese delivery, Serbia is now in second place in Europe behind Great Britain, according to the “Our World in Data” database with a vaccination rate of over 10 percent of the population (as of February 17).
But the political implications of the corona crisis are becoming more and more visible. According to the political scientist Vedran Džihić, who teaches in Vienna, they reinforce a “trend towards autocratization” that has been observed by experts for some time.
Already at the beginning of the crisis, President Aleksandar Vučić used an export ban on medical protection goods announced by the EU Commission and its President for a frontal attack: “Ursula von der Leyen has decided that we have no right to these goods. It is now clear to everyone that European solidarity does not exist. (…) Only China can help us. ”
The large-scale poster campaign in the center of Belgrade last year with “Thank you, Brother Xi”, which was only seen for a short time, may still pass as symbolic politics; the “strategic proximity relationship between Serbia and China” (Vedran Džihić) expressed here, however, deserves more attention.
It can be seen – and the trend is growing – in many fields: from unbureaucratic loans for large infrastructure projects to the delivery of weapons (drones) and surveillance technologies to the expansion of the telecommunications network, in which the Chinese company Huawei is the strategic partner.
China delivers instead of just promising
The reputation of China in the Balkans is growing rapidly, while Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić can mime “the national hero”, the Serbian-language service of Deutsche Welle describes the mutual benefit and side effect of the Chinese serum offensive: “Instead of promises, China delivers vaccines.”
The EU itself is increasingly on the defensive, but it is not entirely innocent of this alienation. In addition to the inadequate corona management, the rather half-hearted interest in EU enlargement has not gone unnoticed in recent years.
The apparent deadlock on EU enlargement is a disappointment for all aspirants.
The mood caused by inadequate corona management is also increasingly irritable elsewhere. Not only the Czech ex-president Vaclav Klaus recently asked Moscow for the delivery of Sputnik vaccine in well-known anti-EU rhetoric about the “incompetence of the EU”. Even clearly western-oriented EU members in the region are increasingly relying on getting vaccines on their own.
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Romania has signed a contract for the purchase of nine million doses of the German vaccine CureVac, which has not yet been approved. As in the Czech Republic, the purchase or license production of Russian serum is also being discussed in Slovakia, and in Croatia the tone is getting louder. Zagreb shouldn’t wait for “more phrase thrashing” in Brussels, but rather procure the vaccine on the free market, the web portal “index.hr” demands.
The political implications of the growing influence of authoritarian powers in south-eastern Europe and especially in the Western Balkans region on the part of the EU have not yet received the attention it deserves.
Ursula von der Leyen called herself the president of a “geopolitical commission” for good reason at the end of 2019, and the EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell warned at the same time: “Europe must learn the language of power.” It is high time to address them Resolutions to remember, otherwise a drift from countries in the region to authoritarian allies could become more and more likely.
Michael Roick is the project manager of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom for the Western Balkans, based in Belgrade.
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Brother Beijing Moscow advantage slow vaccination campaign politics