Left out by EU, Balkan nations turn to Russia, China for vaccine

As coronavirus cases rise in the region, several countries are yet to begin vaccinations two months after the EU’s inoculation drive began.

People in Belgrade receive doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine as Serbia begins inoculating people against the virus [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Nearly two months after the European Union started its vaccination campaigns, four out of six countries in the Western Balkans have yet to begin.

With climbing coronavirus cases and no clear timeline on when vaccines from the COVAX mechanism and EU procurement scheme will be delivered, many countries have been looking towards China and Russia for solutions.

The moves come as wealthy nations have been criticised for taking the bulk of this year’s vaccine supply.

Israel has the highest number of inoculations in the world per capita, followed by the UAE, the UK, Bahrain, the US and EU member states Italy, Germany and France.

To compare, 60 percent of Israel’s population has already received at least one shot, as other countries relying on COVAX and the EU procurement mechanism, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo, are yet to start vaccine drives.

Montenegro currently has the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in Europe (9,910 infected per 100,000 people) while Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the highest COVID related mortality rates in Europe (4,775 deaths with a population of 3.5 million).

To address the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) set up COVAX in April to ensure that all participating countries worldwide, regardless of their wealth will have equal access to vaccines.

People wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Belgrade, Serbia on February 3 [Marko Djuric/Reuters]

Adi Cerimagic, an analyst at the EU-based European Stability Initiative said all Western Balkan states signed up to the COVAX and EU procurement mechanism to purchase vaccines “in a transparent and somewhat cheaper way”.

“It was clear from the beginning that this meant that the vaccines’ delivery might not be as quick as for the EU, but it was considered the safest and the cheapest path,” Cerimagic said.

Serbia paid four million euros ($4.8m) to COVAX last year, but with the unexplained prolonged delay from the EU, it began making its own bilateral deals with Russia and China.

The country now leads continental Europe with the highest inoculation rate, having vaccinated 550,000 people so far out of a population of seven million.

Serbia, a model of success?

From mid-December until the end of January Serbia procured 1.1 million vaccines, according to authorities, one million of which were Chinese vaccines and the rest consisting of Russia’s Sputnik V and the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech shots. Serbia is also the first country in Europe to secure vaccines from China’s Sinopharm.

President Aleksandar Vucic announced at a news conference on Tuesday that by the end of February, Serbia will have two million vaccine doses in stock from various manufacturers.

The country also plans to start domestic production of Sputnik V by the end of the year.

In Late January, Vucic compared the world’s scramble for vaccines, or so-called “vaccine nationalism”, with the Titanic, telling viewers in his Instagram video that “the rich try to secure rescue boats only for themselves”, leaving the poor to drown.

Last week, he continued to criticise countries who were buying more vaccines than needed.

“It’s as if they intend to vaccinate all their cats and dogs,” he said.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge echoed the same message last week when he called for richer nations to share their doses with poorer nations, unable to buy vaccines.

“We know that in the EU, Canada, UK, US, they all ordered and made deals for four to nine times more doses than they need,” Kluge told the AFP news agency.

“So my point here is, don’t wait until you have 70 percent of the population [vaccinated] to share with the Balkans, to share with central Asia, Africa.”

Cerimagic told Al Jazeera that the number of vaccines needed to inoculate the region’s health workers was relatively lower than the EU’s daily vaccinations.

Late last month on Twitter, he said between 50,000 and 100,000 doses were required for four Western Balkan countries to vaccinate their health workers – which amounted to the total number of vaccines administered in Germany in just one day.


Cerimagic suggested that EU member states, with the support of the European Commission, should come join forces and provide vaccines for Western Balkan health workers.

“This would send a message that the EU recognises [the] Western Balkans as being part of the EU, that they can think politically, understand the situation, show solidarity, and at the same time save lives,” Cerimagic said.

Having been sidelined by the EU, Serbia’s neighbours are now also increasingly looking to Russia and China for solutions.

On Saturday, North Macedonia announced it will seal a deal this week to buy 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines from China, hoping to start inoculating its population quickly.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, specifically the Republika Srpska entity, received the first 2,000 doses of vaccines just last week, having procured the Sputnik V from Russia.

Republika Srpska authorities said they expect to receive approximately 200,000 more doses from Russia by end of February and a similar round by mid-March.

Last week, Montenegro said it was expecting 100,000 Russian vaccines to be delivered, with the first 5,000 doses to arrive imminently.

A medical worker shows a vial of China’s Sinopharm vaccine in Belgrade. Serbia is the first European country to receive the Chinese Sinopharm’s vaccine for mass inoculation [Darko Vojinovic/AP]

Ljubomir Filipovic, a former politician, analyst and activist in Montenegro, told Al Jazeera the situation in the small Adriatic country was “alarming”.

In Budva, a Montenegrin town of only 20,000 people, there have been 100 daily confirmed coronavirus cases over the past few days, and information about vaccine arrivals is unreliable, Filipovic said.

“This is a huge problem for Montenegro, which shouldn’t allow itself to have the image of the most infected country in Europe and thus jeopardise another tourist season,” said Filipovic, who has led efforts to assist local people most affected by the health crisis.

“That would be the final nail in the coffin of our already weakened economy,” Filipovic said, referring to the World Bank’s latest report which classified Montenegro as the world’s fourth hardest-hit economy due to the pandemic.

Would these hard-hit countries avoid further problems by signing deals with Russia and China earlier, as Serbia did?

Cerimagic, at the EU-based European Stability Initiative, said he is not convinced.

In December 2020 or early January, he said, authorities in these countries may not have been able to convince their citizens in the way that Serbian authorities have, citing fears that these shots were not approved by the EU and US agencies.

“I am also not convinced that some of them would have all the links needed to purchase vaccines directly from China and Russia,” Cerimagic said.

“The irony is that after the initial mistakes in March 2020, when the EU cut the Western Balkans out of its plans about how to respond to the pandemic, the EU and the Commission changed their course and included Western Balkans in the procurement and provided financial support for the health systems.

“They also helped countries prepare in practical terms for the vaccines. So now when the delivery of the vaccines is taking much longer than expected and with no clear timeline, politicians in the region are pressured to turn to those that can deliver quickly. This means that some other countries might yet enjoy the fruit of the EU’s work so far.”

Source: Al Jazeera