Friday, January 28

Values ​​on vaccines? The history of COVID jab diplomacy in Eastern Europe

For many countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, the dilemmas posed by the script for acquiring COVID vaccines have been compared to those that existed during the Cold War.

The governments of the area have been asked the following questions: Which vaccine is the best? Which ones can be available quickly? Do they risk damaging relations with the West if they look to Russia for their missing doses?

“What I like about the Cold War is the deeper ideological implications, because I think vaccine diplomacy is about values ​​more than vaccines,” Allison Carragher, visiting researcher at Carnegie Europe, told Euronews.

The specialist in the Western Balkans and countries of the former Yugoslavia sees the choice of where the Eastern European countries can get their doses as a “clash of two value systems”, with Chinese and Russian vaccines on the one hand and vaccines Westerners on the other. other.

“It’s not just about soft power or geopolitical goodwill, it’s about what the underlying values ​​are to those vaccine programs,” he added.

Some of the broader issues this divide raises for Eastern countries to consider are whether they need transparency, data sharing, involving the private sector and relying on a regulator, according to Carragher.

But now, there is a broader spectrum of key players than there was during the Cold War, with some countries turning to China, says Joanna Hosa, deputy director of the Greater Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

She agrees that the countries in the area clearly prefer the vaccines of their political allies, but added that the efficiency of the vaccines is also an important dimension.

The Russian dilemma: ‘Scientific evidence does matter here’

Russia came straight out the door in the COVID vaccine race, stating that it had registered a hit in August 2020, but many scientists at home and abroad questioned the decision to make it available for use ahead of trials of Phase 3, which normally last for months. and involve thousands of people.

“That was initially counterproductive for Russia,” Hosa explained, adding that this is why many countries “preferred Western vaccines at first … because scientific evidence does matter here.”

But when some in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans saw that Russian and Chinese vaccines were easier to obtain, they began to change their minds, he added.

In fact, even some EU countries have joined before the bloc’s drug regulator approves Sputnik V, and Hungary and Slovakia are already receiving doses.

“Germany has also been considering producing Sputnik vaccines, repeating the mantra that it is in everyone’s interest to have as many people vaccinated as possible in Europe and across Europe,” Hosa said, and on March 9, the Italian Chamber of Commerce -Russian announced that the first will produce Sputnik V from July.

But no matter how urgent the need for vaccines is, some ex-Soviet states have been unable to ignore disputes with Moscow, least of all with Ukraine.

“Ukraine would not want to depend on its enemy: these countries are at war and the situation is so emotional and the levels of trust are so low, at least from Ukraine’s side,” Hosa explained, saying that Kiev was gone as far as to legislate against the Russian vaccine so that the simple purchase of the jab is illegal.

There was a request to go against the Russian vaccine “because it is seen as a threat to national security,” he added.

The Russo-Georgian war is also fresh in the minds of Georgians, according to the expert, “so their emotions are also quite high”, making them more likely to lean towards Chinese vaccines, or at least just a small Overall percentage of Sputnik V Uptake.

“Moldova is on the fence. Although the current president is very pro-European, she also does not want to have problems with Russia,” said Hosa, so “they could buy some doses, but they would not be the majority.”

On the other side of the coin, Belarus has welcomed Sputnik V vaccines with open arms, because “they really have nothing to lose as they are not actually courting the EU or any other country and Lukashenko is betting on Russia “. .

Meanwhile, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been negotiating to obtain Western vaccines for Belarusians, but her actions are more symbolic as even if she gets some promises, the Belarusian regime is unlikely to accept them. , according to Hosa.

Cross-country donations: ‘it has to be’ political

Geopolitical relations between countries are also at stake when it comes to nations that donate doses to those in need.

Serbia has been regarded as one of the world’s leading vaccinators, and the government has gone to great lengths to say that securing coups is not a political issue.

President Aleksandar Vučić recently told Euronews that “some vaccines that came from the East were even safer than the ones we received from the West,” adding “but they were all great.”

Dig a little deeper, though, and Carragher says it “has to be” political.

“Is (Vučić) saving lives with vaccines? Yes, most likely no one will dispute it, but there are political implications. We live in a real political world, so you have to consider all the implications,” he said.

The Western Balkans expert says the Serbian president has given a “masterclass” in vaccine diplomacy, working with Europe, the United States, China and Russia and using it to their advantage both domestically and politically.

It has donated vaccines within the region, in particular to North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, starting with the Serbian majority side, but then to both entities, as well as sending vaccines to the Serbian population in Kosovo.

“There is an ethnic component, there is a political component,” Carragher explained, “and the Prime Minister of Serbia has linked these vaccine donations to further regional integration, which at first glance is a very general statement, but Aleksandar Vučić is also one. of the regional leaders at the helm of this mini Schengen regional cooperation project and proposal, of which some of the other Western Balkan countries remain highly skeptical. “

On the other hand, Hosa says it has not gone unnoticed that Serbia has been “playing some geopolitical games within its own country” by working with China and Russia while it was a candidate for EU membership, which could have led to concerns about where this country is really going geopolitically to the arms of Brussels, Moscow or Beijing.

The EU public relations disaster

The European Commission’s vaccination plan has been the subject of much criticism for its slow deployment.

For this reason, Hosa does not believe that the decisions of some Eastern European governments to act on their own outside the guidance of the EMA will negatively affect their position in the bloc or their accession to the union.

In the Western Balkans, many countries did not qualify for COVAX, the ease of coordinating injection purchases globally to ensure poorer countries were not excluded from the vaccine race, thus relying on EU deliveries.

When EU vaccines were slow to appear, Carragher believes that where countries decided to go reflects political leadership and leanings.

“Albania and Montenegro were unconditional in staying with the West, looking at the EU, looking at those institutions and being more serious or dedicated to being Western NATO countries, the EU,” he said.

“Whereas a country like Serbia has been fully willing to work with whoever can best serve its national agenda.”

She thinks the Western Balkans region has been repeatedly sidelined on its way to the EU and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate “the feeling that they have been forgotten”, not only in terms of vaccine diplomacy but also significant spending. fiscal to keep economies afloat.

“The EU was not the first to introduce vaccines in most of these countries and although we are talking about a very small number of other places, the symbolism is important,” Carragher explained.

‘What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas’

While vaccine diplomacy may seem like a hot topic in the context of the pandemic, Hosa believes we will forget who has bought from whom over time.

“What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” he said. “Many things will be forgiven” because states were reacting to a global crisis.

Hosa says he is “cautiously optimistic” for the EU scheme in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, as the bloc has bought so many doses, but says he would like to see concrete promises made, especially as regards the neighborhood. from the East, which has “not been given much attention yet.”

Carragher adds that choosing who to buy vaccines from is not the only decision that could affect countries in the long run.

“It’s not just about who will provide the vaccine this year,” he said. “If you are becoming a Chinese or Russian vaccine manufacturer, it is a long-term partnership. Are there other implicit or explicit chains linked to part of that vaccine diplomacy that have yet to be discovered?”

While both experts think geopolitics has played a role in the procurement of vaccines in the East, Carragher adds that clearly this was not the only consideration for countries battling a deadly disease.

“In part, those (decisions) are just part of democratic pressures and pressure to save lives, in some cases more than, ‘Oh, we’re going to choose Russia over that.’

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