Serbian vaccine diplomacy shames the EU
In a socialist-era concrete hall on the banks of the Sava River, Serbia is changing its international reputation one blow at a time, and shows that vaccine diplomacy is not the preserve of the powers that be global.
Last year, President Aleksandar Vucic, who came to power on a pro-EU platform but enjoys pleasant relations with Beijing and Moscow, ordered millions of vaccines from the east and west. As a result, Serbia is among the first European countries to administer Chinese-made jabs, alongside Russians Sputnik V, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna. By mid-April, nearly 43 doses had been administered to 100 people.
But Serbia also has a population skeptical of vaccines, as the number of new cases remains high (but declining), Belgrade has chosen to share its generosity. Tens of thousands of people from the Balkans have recently come to Serbia for vaccination.
Many locals now regard Serbia’s vaccine success with gratitude. Yet there is also frustration that they had to rely on Belgrade rather than their own governments or the EU. This positioning of Belgrade as a regional capital takes us back to another era. After World War II, it was the capital of Yugoslavia and the center of the non-aligned movement – a balancing policy devised by Marshal Josip Broz Tito to maintain Cold War neutrality and which helped render the country influential globally.
The Yugoslav project collapsed in the 1990s largely due to Serbian nationalism, which fanned the flames of war in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and later Kosovo, resulting in seven smaller countries and less influential. Many open wounds remain. President Vucic was Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister during the war in Kosovo and still refuses to recognize his 2008 declaration of independence. Even so, his vaccine diplomacy has improved relations after a long bitterness. .
In early March, Vucic personally delivered 10,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Bosnia, after making similar donations to Montenegro and North Macedonia. His government continues to give doses across the Balkans, while it was not until the end of March that the EU gave Bosnia its first 49,800 doses, purchased through the Covax mechanism. “The EU has lost much of its soft power,” a former Western diplomat living in Belgrade told me.
The success of the program goes beyond Serbia’s closest neighbors. I asked a German businessman, while waiting for his second shot at a Belgrade vaccination center, when he could get one in his home country. “Our deployment of vaccines is a national embarrassment,” he replied, “especially since the vaccine I am receiving was invented in Germany”. He expected that Germany’s failure to immunize its citizens more effectively would result in a reassessment of its decentralized federal system.
Consensual decision-making and decentralized powers are not the way Serbia is run. Vucic is the main decision maker. His Serbian Progressive Party has a majority majority in parliament, and each town or village is governed by its party or one of its satellites. He made it clear that he personally negotiated the purchase of millions of Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccines, decided to source Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines, and concluded bilateral contracts with Western companies. Voters perceive him to have skillfully balanced East and West.
By offering Beijing and Moscow a European proving ground for their vaccines, ahead of EU regulatory approval, Vucic has taken a gamble on the safety of its citizens. And while there are concerns with so much reliance on Sinopharm, despite its refusal to release the results of the Phase 3 trial and questions about its effectiveness, even critics are praising its success. The fact that many Serbs remember the days of an authoritarian government also means that many do not criticize its autocratic style today.
A woman I met after her first stroke recounted how her mother remembered the country’s last outbreak, a smallpox epidemic in Yugoslavia in 1972. The government organized a vaccination campaign in which almost everyone the population of 20 million was vaccinated in less than two months. “What is this democracy?” the woman’s mother had asked. “Under Tito, 18 million people were vaccinated in three weeks! Now it was a system that worked!