Wednesday, August 4

Multi-gang geopolitics makes Serbia a global vaccination hit | Society

A woman in Belgrade receives a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine last January.
A woman in Belgrade receives a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine last January.MARKO DJURIC € / REUTERS

Nobody in Serbia makes calculations about which vaccine they will get. Its citizens simply mark the one they prefer to receive on a digital form. Or they point out that they don’t care which one, which tends to advance their turn in a rapid process that has made the country sixth in the world according to the comparative table of Our World in Data, led by Israel. In addition, it is the second in Europe with the most vaccinated population per 100 people, according to this table. 28.8% of Serbs have received at least one dose and it is the fourth State that has vaccinated the most in the last seven days, far from the attention that the United Kingdom has attracted (37.1%, third in the world and first in Europe) by linking the progress of its program with Brexit. The average in the EU is 10.9%.

A look at the four boxes of the Serbian form reveals much of the geopolitical guts of success. They correspond to the vaccine developed by the American Pfizer with the German BioNTech, that of the Anglo-Swedish giant AstraZeneca, the Chinese Sinopharm and the Russian Sputnik V. That is, both western ones approved by the EU and two of the strategic rivals of the Union that still do not have the approval of the European Medicines Agency (EMA, for its acronym in English).

A diversity that is neither accidental nor Belgrade misses the opportunity to stand out. Symbolically, the head of government, Ana Brnabic, trained in the United States, last December became the first European leader to be inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech drug, while the Russophile head of Internal Affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, opted for Sputnik V and that of Health, Zlatibor Loncar, for the most questioned of Sinopharm.

With seven million inhabitants, Serbia has registered half a million cases and 4,644 deaths from covid. The vaccination began last January and the official message is that it has been able to focus on the purely health dimension of the campaign thanks to a multi-gang foreign policy that frees it from geostrategic corsets. It is a European country that is negotiating its accession to the EU, but also one of the few Balkan states outside NATO (the organization that bombed it two decades ago) with Russia and China (which has invested 4 billion euros there since 2011) as allies. Both block Kosovo – the former Serbian province that unilaterally declared its independence in 2008 – from entering the UN thanks to its permanent seat on the Security Council.

The paradox is that the alleged apoliticality of vaccination has been precisely very political. The president, Aleksandar Vucic, has assured that some vaccines “that come from the East are even safer than those that come from the West” and that he has seen reports from Western intelligence services admitting that the Chinese is better. “Vucic, [Vladímir] Putin and Xi [Jinping] They are saving Serbia ”, even headlined a tabloid that, like everyone in the country, supports the Government.

Serbia will be the first European country to produce Sputnik V, starting in May, and the Sinopharm drug, starting in October and in a factory that it will build together with China and the United Arab Emirates. These drugs will be sold “even at cost” to other countries in the region, the president said last Thursday.

A year ago, when the EU left out of its strategy against the pandemic the part of the Balkans that is not in the Union, Vucic called European solidarity a “fairy tale” that “only exists on paper” and the streets of the country were filled with flags and posters in gratitude to Xi. The president has also accused developed countries of buying extra doses “as if they wanted to vaccinate all their dogs and cats” and behaving like the rich in the shipwreck of the Titanic, “Preparing expensive lifeboats while those of us who are not rich, the little ones, like the countries of the Western Balkans, sink together.” A discourse that feeds that the majority of Serbs today believe that the main donor to their country is Beijing when it is still long the EU. “I know that a diplomatic battle is being fought over vaccines in Serbia,” admitted the head of community diplomacy, Josep Borrell, last February. “It seems we are not that good at propaganda.”

Donations in the region

The success has allowed Belgrade to mark so many diplomats in the region. Last December it announced the distribution of vaccines in the north of Kosovo, mostly Serb, while the rest of the country continued without them, although it ended up backtracking due to the controversy generated. It has donated 4,680 doses to North Macedonia, 2,000 to Montenegro and 10,000 to the Bosnian-majority Bosnian and Croatian entity, a quarter of a century after the war. “I am happy that we can save lives […] Serbia is acting as a friend and a neighbor, “Vucic said at the handover ceremony at Sarajevo airport on the 2nd. Sefik Dzaferovic, one of the members of the Bosnian tripartite presidency present there, declared:” When the multilateral mechanisms they failed, President Vucic sent an offer, we accepted it and I thank you again for it ”.

“Donations to neighboring countries are the biggest public relations element, building Vucic’s image as a strong regional leader,” says Majda Ruge, senior analyst at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations. “Regionally there is a perception that the EU has again failed its closest neighborhood. The information that it stores 10 million unused vaccines does not help to improve this perception ”. Seven days after Vucic achieved his juicy newspaper headline in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Foreign Minister, Bisera Turkovic, demonstrated at a press conference in Berlin with her German counterpart, Heiko Maas, the “rightly discontent” of its citizens for not having received “not a single” dose through Covax – an international mechanism for developing countries to access the vaccine – despite having paid for 1.2 million doses in advance. Bosnia – where vaccination has begun only in the Serbian entity, with Sputnik V also donated by Belgrade – at the beginning of the month resumed the partial confinement due to hospital saturation and registered a record of cases last Tuesday. Also North Macedonia, with 70% of infections by the British strain, has reinstated the curfew.

The miracle Serbian on vaccination may now, however, run into misinformation. There are still millions of its citizens who have not registered for the injection, in a region where “most do not plan to be vaccinated” and the visibility of conspiracy theories about the pandemic is “surprisingly high”, according to a report. last December of the BiEPAG research group, formed by the European Fund for the Balkans and the Center for South European Studies of the University of Graz (Austria). The progress of the campaign has also been accompanied by a rebound in infections, in part due to the relaxation in compliance with the restrictions, as recognized by the director of the World Health Organization in Serbia, Marian Ivanusa.

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