How did Serbia become a European vaccine champion? With help from its friends

Serbia’s gains from ‘vaccine diplomacy’ create bitterness among Balkan neighbours

An elderly man receives a dose of the Sputnik V vaccine against the Covid-19 at the Boris Trajkovski sports hall in Skopje as the country start its vaccination campaign, after months of difficulties on April 16, 2021. Moscow announced on April 14, 2021 the start of production of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Serbia, the first European country outside Russia and Belarus to manufacture the vaccine. / AFP / Robert ATANASOVSKI

Serbia leapfrogged the EU in inoculating its people by capitalising on "vaccination diplomacy" offered by foreign powers, a leading academic said.

The feat created bitterness among its Balkan neighbours, Dr David Ellwood of Johns Hopkins University, said during a conference held on Wednesday by the London think tank Chatham House.

Belgrade’s swift decision to import vaccines from Russia and China, among other countries, enabled it to immunise a third of its population, compared with an average of only 22 per cent among the bloc’s 27 member states, said Dr Ellwood, who is Senior Adjunct Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the university.

Countries in Central and Eastern Europe are in the midst of a “very intense geopolitical competition”, in which Covid-19 shots make a real difference both to local leaders’ standing and to the public perception of foreign powers, he said.

The support from Russia and China could prove difficult for EU security if they later exploit strong links forged through vaccination diplomacy, experts said during the webinar.

Russia is supplying vaccines to about 70 countries, and China to about 90, half of them free of charge.

When countries in Central and Eastern Europe look beyond the continent for supplies, support for the EU is weakened, said Dr Ellwood.

“Central Europe is a fascinating case,” he said. “Who’s going to win the battle for influence in Hungary, in Bulgaria, in the Balkans, in Poland, in Ukraine? These are contested areas with the most intense competition for geopolitical influence. So, any instrument that can be useful in this confrontation is embraced with enthusiasm by the various protagonists.”

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Aleksandar Vucic has offered his people a cocktail of vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Russia's Sputnik V and Sinopharm

While the EU programme lumbers on, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a populist, boasted of offering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and two million doses from Chinese company Sinopharm alongside shots by Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca.

Meanwhile, the Western Balkan countries, keen to join the EU, are looking weak, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania “complaining very bitterly that the EU is letting them down”, Dr Ellwood said.

The contributions are wrapped up in jockeying for influence in the region, he said. China, for instance, is extending its influence within Serbia by building a large branch of the Confucius Institute, Beijing’s cultural outreach centre.

“Does it matter that the Chinese are penetrating Serbia in this way?” Dr Ellwood said. “Vaccine deployments in that part of the world have a very significant geopolitical meaning.”

Russia has made vaccines since 1917, to tackle an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Serbia itself had a proud vaccination history. The former Yugoslavia, of which it was part, immunised almost 20 million people to defeat a smallpox epidemic that struck in 1972.

Dr David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist who previously worked for the WHO, called for greater global unity to defeat the coronavirus, not a proliferation of localised competition.

“Getting vaccines to countries will beat the emergence of a new strain, so the world has to rally together,” he said.

epa09136698 Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic poses with a vial of Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19 during the visit of the Institute of Virology, Vaccines and Sera "Torlak" in Belgrade, Serbia, 15 April 2021. Serbia has become the first country in Southern Europe to produce the Sputnik V at the "Torlak" Institute, a vaccine registered in 60 countries for use against Covid-19.  EPA/ANDREJ CUKIC

Prof Helen Rees, executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in Johannesburg, said immunisation programmes in Africa have proven difficult to administer.

She said this was because because the continent had very few vaccine manufacturers and most shots administered there were given to children.

“On a score of one to 10, 10 being very good, as a world, I think we’re about a three. Some countries have done extremely well, as we know, but I don’t think that we’re anywhere near yet where we want to be.”

The experts agreed it was still too early to tell whether Covid vaccination diplomacy has worked because measuring its success would depend on which vaccine was the most effective in fighting the disease.

A separate conference on vaccine diplomacy on Thursday was hosted in Brussels by the think tank Bruegel.

Catherine Wendt, of the European Commission, defended the bloc during the event, Covid-19 and the Geopolitics of the Balkans.

She said the EU had given €70 million ($84.6m) to help Balkan countries buy vaccines and that it “has delivered for the region”, with a further €66m ($79.8m) given to Serbia.

“It has been a difficult moment for the EU and a difficult moment for the Western Balkans,” she said. “But we’re acting to support the Western Balkans in fighting the pandemic and helping its economic recovery.”

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