Serbia’s Vaccine Influence in the Balkans

When announcing the arrival of a new batch of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines in January, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic compared the state of the world to the Titanic, where “the rich have tried to secure all the boats for themselves,” and poor countries have been left to go down with the ship. But, as the only Balkan country to receive vaccines from China, Russia (Sputnik V), and the West (BioNTech/Pfizer and Astra Zeneca), Serbia has begun to present itself as a regional lifeboat for its neighbors.

As vaccination campaigns roll out unevenly across the globe, Serbia has made impressive progress immunizing its citizens. Behind the United Kingdom but ahead of major EU member states in terms of vaccination rates, Serbia finds itself in a regionally powerful position. However, other Western Balkans countries like Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are struggling with Covid-19 outbreaks—Sarajevo canton currently has the greatest number of cases per 100,000 people in Europe—and will likely have to wait months to access any vaccines. Therefore, who supplies these needed vaccines to the region and how they are supplied will help shape the future geopolitical trajectory and stability of the Western Balkans.

Balkan countries eager to demonstrate their Euro-Atlantic orientation initially declared they would not accept Chinese or Russian vaccines (neither of which have been approved by the European Union’s medicines regulator), signaling they would wait for access to Western vaccines. Serbia, despite its stated desire to join the European Union, took the opposite approach, becoming the first European country to approve the use of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Serbia has made waves since the start of the pandemic, when President Vucic decried EU solidarity as a “fairytale” after the bloc banned the export of medical equipment outside of its borders. China and Russia quickly sent planes full of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Serbia in a show of solidarity. Although the European Union quickly reversed course, eventually allocating $3.3 billion in pandemic-related financial assistance to the Western Balkans, the Serbian government’s reaction was muted when compared with the praise heaped onto China and Russia for their assistance.

Vaccine diplomacy has only amplified this dynamic. So far, Serbia has received 1.5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China, just under 300,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and more than 100,000 doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines. As was the case with deliveries of PPE at the start of the pandemic, vaccine deliveries from Russia and China have been met with a great deal of public fanfare from the government, with President Vucic and other officials greeting planes on the tarmac, while the arrival of Western vaccines has been less publicized. Comparatively, European vaccines meant for the Balkans under the COVAX initiative have not arrived, underlining a sense of abandonment in most countries in the region—but not in Serbia. Asked by journalists when Serbia can expect to receive European vaccines, President Vucic said at a press conference that while he would thank the European Union when the vaccines arrive, “all I can say is that I don’t care. We worked without them.”

Serbia’s strategy has had an even greater dividend regionally. In February and March, when other countries in the region had not yet received vaccines, President Vucic personally delivered thousands of AstraZeneca and BioNTech vaccines to North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (both to the Republika Srpska and the Federation entities). Serbia has even rolled out an unofficial vaccination program for Kosovo Serbs, bussing people over the Kosovo border into Serbia so that they can receive their vaccinations, much to the ire of Kosovo’s government. On March 11, President Vucic announced the construction of a factory for producing Sinopharm vaccines in Serbia, funded by China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As currently imagined, the factory is expected to be fully functional by mid-October 2021 and will enable Serbia to become a major vaccine supplier for the entire Balkan region.

Now pro-EU countries in the region are following Serbia’s lead. Both Montenegro and North Macedonia—which originally declared they would not take vaccines from Russia or China—have signed agreements to procure the Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccines. Other EU countries—such as Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Italy—have also followed Serbia’s lead and are considering procuring and distributing Russian or Chinese vaccines to their citizens regardless of the lack of approval by the European Medicines Agency. Italy has recently agreed to produce the Sputnik V vaccine domestically.

By working closely with China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states, while at the same time enjoying generous EU assistance, Serbia has proactively positioned itself to reap benefits from geopolitical competition. The success of this strategy justifies the Serbian government’s turn away from the European Union as the country fails to progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration. Ahead of Serbian general and presidential elections in 2022, Serbia’s vaccine success has also been important in shoring up domestic support for President Vucic’s government, particularly following large anti-government protests over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Over the past 12 months, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and accompanying vaccine nationalism have demonstrated flaws in European and U.S. responses, governing competence, and solidarity. China and Russia have both been quick to capitalize on these failures by offering their vaccines and humanitarian aid in an attempt to boost their own influence and soft power abroad, even as their domestic vaccine rollouts have faltered. Only 4 percent of citizens China have been vaccinated, but the country has sent more vaccines abroad than it has administered at home. In Russia, the percentage of Russians vaccinated is even smaller, at 3.5 percent (largely due to widespread distrust of the vaccine). While democracies often must prioritize domestic public opinion, which in the pandemic context leads to the vaccination of their own citizens before sending supplies abroad, Russia and China are not hampered by these constraints.

What does Serbia’s successful domestic and regional vaccine campaign tell us? First and foremost, it underscores the “wisdom” of President Vucic’s geopolitical balancing among great powers and strengthens the image of the European Union’s impotence rather than its geopolitical relevance. Countries in the Western Balkans who expected greater solidarity from European partners—even on an individual country level—have been disappointed. President Vucic’s vaccine donations to countries like North Macedonia may be more symbolic than substantive, but symbolism in a crisis for a vulnerable region matters. The European Union’s absence in the region has been palpable, undercutting European credibility and emphasizing that European enlargement is an impractical dream. Absent a European future, who can the region rely on? Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy is aimed at showing its neighbors that they too should turn away from Europe and rely more on Belgrade, with support from Russia and China. While the need to protect citizens from the deadly coronavirus is absolutely paramount, the geopolitical implications of vaccine influence can no longer be ignored.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dejana Saric is a research assistant with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Heather A. Conley

Dejana Saric