There is a country in Europe whose citizens can freely choose which Covid-19 vaccine they wish to receive, be it the western-made Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca, Chinas Sinopharm or Russias Sputnik V.
Serbia, a landlocked nation in southeastern Europe, has unexpectedly become a regional vaccination hub amid Covid-19 diplomacy. At the end of March, thousands of residents of neighboring countries, including North Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others, traveled to Serbia to be vaccinated against Covid-19. There was also reports from a Turkish travel agency promoting vaccine tourism with packages starting at 700 (AU $ 1,095) to those who wish to travel to Belgrade to get a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.
In the short term, Serbia’s decision to allow foreigners to use the country’s immunization capabilities will likely improve the image of the Balkan countries in the eyes of the global public. In addition, Belgrade could potentially use vaccine tourism as a lever of soft power in its relations with neighboring states. Unlike Serbia, other Balkan countries have struggled to obtain vaccines. They placed their hopes on the European Union or on the international COVAX system. Belgrade, on the other hand, imported vaccines not only from Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca, which received authorization in the European Union, but also from Russia and China.
Beijing has played an important role in the Serbian vaccination campaign. Even at the very start of the pandemic, in March 2020, the country appealed for help from China. President Aleksandar Vucic criticized the EU for restricting exports of medical equipment, calling European solidarity a fairy tale. At the same time, he rented Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him friend and brother. As a result, in January 2021, Serbia became the first European country to use the Covid-19 vaccine developed by China for mass deployment.
Vucic himself recently took a job Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, while the country’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic received the Pfizer vaccine. This interesting choice of plans could symbolize the geopolitical orientation of Belgrade. Although heavily dependent on the West and surrounded by NATO and EU members, Serbia appears to be trying to balance the interests of the European Union, the United States, China and Russia.
As most countries are discovering, displays of diplomatic support come at a price in this new era of growing rivalry between China and the West.
Until recently, Western powers were relatively ambivalent about China’s influence in Serbia. In April 2012, just a year before Xi Jinping became president, China launched the 16 + 1 initiative, a platform bringing together China and 11 EU member countries in Eastern Europe as well as five candidate countries in the Balkans. Lately, Greece has also made an effort to join this group of post-communist states, renamed 17 + 1. Since then, China has started to make significant investments in infrastructure in the so-called Western Balkan countries, in reality all located in the central and southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and not in the west. Indeed, Chinese investments in the Balkan countries which are outside the EU are mainly concentrated in Serbia, which has the largest economy in the region and represents 44% of the regional GDP.
In the past seven years, China has built several factories in Serbia. They mainly produce auto parts, although Chinese companies are involved in the construction of highways, railways, bridges, power and other infrastructure in the country. In addition,in 2016 Chinas Hebei Iron & Steel Group bought the Serbian steel plant Zelezara Smederevo, which was previously owned by the American company US Steel. Chinese investors are would have interested in building an oil refinery in Serbia, as well as expanding their control over certain segments of the nations mining industry.
Beijing’s affairs in Serbia have now caught the attention of EU institutions. Some have accused Chinese companies operating in the Balkan nation are causing dramatic air pollution. On April 10 in Belgrade, thousands of demonstrators demanded a stronger government response to environmental damage from industries and pollution, a large-scale protest covered by Western media.
As most countries are discovering, displays of diplomatic support come at a price in this new era of growing rivalry between China and the West. Western powers would prefer to preserve the status quo, where Serbia remains in the Euro-Atlantic geopolitical orbit, but other actors such as China and Russia share a limited share of influence. For example, in 2019, Serbia, whose parliament declared armed neutrality in 2007 conducted 13 military exercises with NATO members. However, in June 2020, Serbia would have bought six new military drones from China.
Although Belgrade has used vaccination diplomacy to slightly improve its position on the world stage, in the long term, the country’s geopolitical focus is expected to remain unchanged. Serbia is likely to continue to push for EU membership, with very little chance of joining the Union anytime soon, if at all. At the same time, foreign companies East and West should continue to use the coal-rich nation as fertile ground for their lucrative businesses. This will likely redistribute the country’s wealth according to the new geopolitical reality in the post-Covid world.
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