Political issue: Corona
The Western Balkans in the geostrategic power game

Mann mit Plakat auf den Straßen von Belgrad
Ein Mann hält auf den Straßen von Belgrad ein Plakat des serbischen Präsidenten Aleksandar Vucic und dem chinesischen Präsidenten Xi Jinping, mit der Aufschrift "serbische und chinesische Brüder für immer". © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Darko Vojinovic

South-East Europe – with the exception of Serbia – is struggling with a vaccine shortage. Although almost all Western Balkan countries have already paid for their promised vaccine supplies through the WHO´s COVAX programme, some smaller EU candidates – such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina or North Macedonia – have so far received only a minimal number of Western vaccine doses. Like the EU candidates, the EU members in the region are also concerned about the supply difficulties of Western producers, and confidence in Brussels’ procurement efforts has already been severely undermined.

Both in the EU and in the EU waiting room, patience is waning, disappointment with the EU is rising, and the politicisation potential therein is being readily exploited by third parties in the geostrategic power game. Following Serbia’s example, more and more states in the region are starting to rely on direct negotiations with producers and supply contracts – especially with China and Russia.

From downplayer to pioneer: Serbia

For many Serbs, one episode remains unforgettable when the keyword “Corona” is mentioned. A year ago, on February 27, 2020, the Serbian Government and its President held a memorable press conference at which a government medical advisor described the Corona virus as the ‘funniest virus in history’ and advised Serbian women to travel to hard-hit Italy, as many products there were then on discount and women were protected from the virus anyway due to increased oestrogen levels. President Vučić visibly struggled to keep his composure in the background and finally laughed heartily. Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar added that this virus was ‘much weaker’ than the normal flu.

Less than two weeks later, the Government switched from amusement to panic mode, and Europe’s toughest measures in the fight against the virus were imposed. Since then, Serbia has alternated between easing and renewed tightening, with tactical – election-related – measures playing a not insignificant role last year. For example, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections on June 21, the local football derby in Belgrade, with over 20,000 spectators in attendance, was simply allowed to take place – to the delight of the fans, but contrary to epidemiological advice.

However, since manufactured vaccines have become available, the tide has visibly turned. The first vaccinations of doctors and nurses in the country with the Pfizer BioNTech serum had already begun before Christmas – the first vaccination was given to head of government Ana Brnabić. At the beginning of January, Russophile politicians such as Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin and Parliamentary Speaker Ivica Dačić were the first to be vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik V serum. Yet initially the Russian vaccine was also difficult to obtain in Serbia in January. That has changed. Tens of thousands of doses have arrived in the meantime.

Only after a transport plane from Beijing landed in Belgrade in mid-January with one million Sinopharm doses on board did mass vaccination finally get underway on January 19. So far, about one million people have received the first vaccination. Thanks to the Chinese shipment, Serbia currently ranks second in Europe behind the UK, with a vaccination rate of over 12 per cent of the population (as of  February 18), according to OurWorldinData – a remarkable achievement.

Political consequences and implications

The political consequences of the Corona crisis are, however, becoming increasingly apparent.

Like a catalyst, it has reinforced a ‘trend towards autocratisation’ that has been observable for some time.[1] At the beginning of the crisis, President Vučić was already using 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. Now it is clear to everyone that European solidarity does not exist. It was a nice fairy tale. The only ones who can help us now are the People’s Republic of China. I wrote a letter to Xi Jinping, I did not call him friend, but brother, not my personal friend, but the friend and brother of my country. Only China can help us.’[2]

While these statements should perhaps not be taken at face value when the EU’s real importance in and commitment to the region – which far outweighs that of all other actors – is taken into account, any interpretation that tends to follow routines, and thus fail to grasp adequately the significance of emerging or already existing strategic alliances, will be inadequate.

As plausible as the Serbian president’s behaviour may seem as a proven means of pressure from a small country in the traditional power game with regional powers of influence, it does not do sufficient justice to the ‘strategic proximity between Serbia and China’[3], which is already taking effect on many levels. Last year´s brief large-scale billboard in the centre of Belgrade – ‘Thank you, Brother Xi’ – may still pass for symbolic politics, but the president´s volte-face against the EU was no trifle: ‘Here, before the eyes of the European public, the president of one of the EU enlargement candidates not only accepted the damage to relations with the EU, he even publicly celebrated the new orientation towards China as a new beacon of hope.’[4]

The EU itself is not entirely innocent in this development.

Between scapegoat and malpractice: the EU

The foreign ministers of 13 EU states signed a letter at the beginning of the year calling for the vaccines to be shared with EU aspirants in the Balkans. This initiative quickly came to nothing. While the supply difficulties of the Western producers do considerable damage to the EU´s reputation, they simultaneously strengthen the image of Beijing and Moscow. The strong growth of China´s reputation in the Balkans, and the Serbian President’s opportunity to play the “national hero”, gives rise to the Serbian-language service of Deutsche Welle paraphrase of the mutual benefit and side effect of the Chinese serum offensive: ‘Because instead of promises, China delivers vaccines.’

The EU is increasingly on the defensive. Besides poor Corona management, the rather half-hearted interest in EU enlargement has not gone unnoticed in recent years. The EU obviously has other concerns. Even the German EU Presidency was unable to persuade the poorest EU member, Bulgaria, to give in over its blockade of the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia. The apparent standstill in EU enlargement is a disappointment not only for Skopje and Tirana, however, but for the entire region.

“Find the vaccine, with or without the EU!”

Shortly after Serbia, neighbouring Hungary became, in January, the first EU member to sign supply contracts with Russia and China (Prime Minister Orban: ‘We want vaccines, not promises’). Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia in the Western Balkans have announced direct negotiations with the producers.

At least Serbia, which thanks to China is better supplied with serum than others, has also tried its hand at a kind of vaccine diplomacy in recent weeks. Last month, Belgrade “ceded”, i.e. sold, 8,000 Pfizer doses it had received to North Macedonia: at least the doctors in the COVID clinics there were able to be vaccinated with them.

The vaccinations announced by Belgrade for members of Kosovo´s Serb minority in the Serb-populated north of the country caused more neighbourly anger. Pristina [RF1] was anything but pleased about the first shipment of vaccine doses to Northern Kosovo. After strong protests from Pristina, Kosovo Serbs willing to be vaccinated are now travelling to provincial municipalities just across the border in Serbia, such as Bujanovac, Kuršumlija or Raška, in order to receive the vaccine.

 The mood is increasingly testy elsewhere as well. The former Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, was not alone when, out of anger and in familiar anti-EU rhetoric about the ‘incompetence of the EU’, he recently asked Moscow to supply the Sputnik vaccine. Western-oriented EU members in the region are also increasingly relying on their own vaccine procurement.

Romania, for example, has also signed a contract to purchase nine million doses of the German vaccine CureVac, which has not yet been approved. As with the Czech Republic, the purchase or licensed production of the Russian serum is also being discussed in Slovakia; and in Croatia the tone is becoming increasingly shrill. Zagreb should no longer wait for ‘further empty rhetoric’ in Brussels, but procure the vaccine on the free market, as the web portal index.hr demands: ‘Find the vaccine, with or without the EU. Others are doing it too.’

 [RF1]My instinct here is to spell this the Serbian way (Priština) as anyone who lives in Serbia would – but I suspect that is something of a political decision, and not really my place to make it – so I leave this as a suggestion rather than making the change!

Conclusion

The Corona crisis has had a lasting impact on social, political and economic life in the Western Balkans and in Southeast Europe as a whole, as it has everywhere in Europe. The economic consequences of the crisis, the perceived lack of interest on the part of the EU, closed borders, worsening prospects, more difficult emigration [RF1] opportunities and limited contact with relatives in the West are increasingly causing problems for the inhabitants of the wider region. Brussels’ mismanagement of the vaccine supply does the rest.

The growing influence of authoritarian powers in the region also has political implications, which, it seems, have not yet received the attention they deserve from the EU. However, the warnings of many years of intimate knowledge of the region should be taken seriously, namely that if Brussels’ rather reactive – or even passive – policy continues, a ‘rapid drift of South-Eastern Europe towards authoritarian allies becomes more likely and that there can be no alternative to the commitment and struggle for freedom, the rule of law and democracy inside and outside the Union, even in times of Corona.’[5]

[1] Vedran Džihić, Corona Crisis in the Western Balkans: A first Analysis of the Course, Consequences and Democratic Implications, in: Südosteuropa Mitteilungen, 01-02/2020, pp. 7-20, here p. 11 [2] Ibid. p. 12  [3]  Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. p. 18  [RF1]This doesn’t seem to be the right word at all – should it perhaps be “asylum”?

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Helena von Hardenberg
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