Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy in China’s shadow

A large shipment of a Chinese vaccine has helped Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić improve his political fortunes.

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić and Bosnia's members of tripartite presidency Šefik Džaferović, Milorad Dodik and Željko Komšić hold a joint news conference, following the donation of a batch of vaccines against COVID-19 by Serbia at Sarajevo International Airport on March 2, 2021 [Reuters/Dado Ruvić]

Over the past year, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has often showed up at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport to welcome shipments of masks, medical equipment, and vaccines from China. So far, Serbia has received millions of euros worth of medical supplies and two million doses of the Sinopharm jab.

This has enabled the country to push forward with its vaccination drive and placed it among the top immunisation champions, along with Israel, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

It has also allowed the Serbian government to send out vaccines to other countries in the Western Balkans, as the region has struggled to ensure a supply amid the global vaccine scramble. On March 2, it was Vučić – along with 5,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine – who leaders in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo welcomed at the airport. Thousands of vials have also been sent to North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serb-majority parts of Kosovo.

Serbia’s vaccine success at home and in the Western Balkans has bewildered both its neighbours and the EU. It has brought much-needed relief as the government had struggled with the fallout of the pandemic and given Vučić a significant political boost, both domestically and regionally.

While it may seem that Serbia’s special relationship with China is paying off, there are hidden costs to the Chinese medical diplomacy which in the long run may outweigh the benefits for Serbians.

Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy

The first batch of Sinopharm arrived in Serbia on January 16, faster than in many African and Latin American partners to whom the Asian giant had promised an early rollout. Along with a few shipments of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, it allowed Serbia to jumpstart its vaccination campaign.

By mid-March, the government had announced that some 2 million Serbians out of a population of 7 million have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccination campaign gathered steam and tempered public anger at the government’s mishandling of the crisis, Vučić turned his gaze to the neighbourhood.

The Western Balkans was largely abandoned by the EU, which was scrambling to find a solution to the enormous shortfall of AstraZeneca vaccine deliveries and was failing to meet its promises to help the region with vaccination procurement.

In early February, Vučić dispatched 2,000 doses to Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On February 14, the Serbian president personally delivered 4,680 doses to North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at the border, as North Macedonia was waiting for a shipment from Bulgaria, which never came. The government in Skopje had announced an agreement with the Bulgarian side to get an allocation of vaccine batches destined for Sofia, but that never materialised.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev welcomes Serbian President Aleksandar Vucić, who brought COVID-19 vaccine donation at the border crossing with Serbia in Tabonovce, North Macedonia on February 14, 2021 [Reuters]

On February 16, Serbia sent 2,000 jabs to Montenegro. Although there had been tensions between Belgrade and Podgorica in the past few years, the new Montenegrin government gladly accepted the shipment.

In early March, Vučić travelled with 5,000 vaccines to Sarajevo. At the airport, he was greeted by members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, Željko Komšić and Šefik Džaferović.

It seems the Serbian government has also sent vaccines to Serb communities in northern Kosovo, although the exact amount is unknown. This has caused anxiety in Pristina, where there is a growing fear that Belgrade is establishing a parallel healthcare system in the Serb-dominated regions of the country.

A domestic booster shot

The success of the vaccination campaign has managed to muffle criticism from the Serbian opposition about the government’s COVID-19 response and questions about the veracity of official statistics about the number of infections and deaths. It has thus significantly boosted Vučić’s standing domestically.

This comes nine months after his party, the Serbian Progressive Party, won a disputed election, marred by an opposition boycott and a record low turnout. The EU criticised the vote and, in October, issued a scathing report on the government’s democratic failings and urged reform. Another blow came when 2020 ended with Serbia not opening or closing a single chapter in its EU accession talks for the first time since it started negotiations in 2014.

Facing pressure, Vučić decided to cut the government’s mandate to two years and scheduled parliamentary elections for 2022, with presidential and local elections in Belgrade also due the same year.

With the success of his vaccine campaign at home and in the Western Balkans, the president has basked in positive media coverage and is surely expecting a major win for his party at the three elections.

Securing enough vaccines for more than two million Serbian citizens in two months amidst a Western Balkan “vaccine vacuum” has also increased public approval for Vučić’s foreign policy of pursuing close ties with both China and Russia. At the same time, the EU’s own mishandling of the crisis and its failure to keep up promises to help the Western Balkans have dented its image. The EU’s allocation of 94 million euro in grants to Serbia to help with the crisis response does not seem to have compensated for its other failures in the eyes of the Serbian public.

In a survey by the Belgrade Security Policy Center, some 75 percent of respondents thought China helped Serbia the most while just 3 percent thought it was the EU that did so. Some 51 percent said they were against joining the EU.

A woman passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping reads “Thanks, brother Xi” in Belgrade, Serbia on April 1, 2020 [File: Reuters/Djordje Kojadinovic]

The cost of ‘vaccine success’

While Vučić may be trying to project the image of a highly skilled diplomat, able to play all sides, to extract maximum benefit for his country, questions linger about what price Serbia may have to pay for his “vaccine success”.

The Serbian government has kept silent about the details of its vaccine contracts, as have Western governments. But there is growing concern that the country may incur unexpected costs. Some reports have linked the rapid delivery of vaccines to a recent massive public contract to build sewage, waste treatment and landfill infrastructure in dozens of municipalities across Serbia which China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) secured.

Although no evidence has been uncovered to prove that such a link indeed exists, there has been little transparency about how this 3.2-billion-euro deal has been concluded. The details of another deal – to build a new factory that would produce China’s Sinopharm vaccine – have also not been released.

Chinese investment is at best a mixed blessing for Balkan economies. It has often angered local businesses, as it has undermined competition by circumventing official rules for tenders and pushed governments to sign opaque contracts. Chinese projects have also had problems with abiding by labour regulations and environmental protections.

It is important to note that Chinese companies implement projects using loans from Chinese banks. So while Serbia has been successful in striking such deals, its debt continues to grow at a rapid pace. In the past 10 years, Serbia’s debt to China has jumped tenfold to 1.1billion euro ($1.31bn), while its trade deficit has gone over 2 billion euro ($2.38bn). This is worrying, particularly given what happened next door in Montenegro. In December 2014, Podgorica struck a deal with the CRBC for a huge highway project, which pushed its public debt to 80 percent of its GDP. China currently holds 25 percent of it.

Apart from debt traps and economic dependence, increased Chinese leverage may stymie Serbia’s democratic development and EU integration. By providing Vučić with easy political wins, his Chinese partners are essentially enabling his authoritarian tendencies.

By dispatching a rather small vaccine shipment, which for Serbia’s size is large enough, China has improved the political fortunes of the Serbian president and possibly secured a major electoral victory for him in 2022. But this shadowy vaccine diplomacy does not bode well for Serbia’s democratic future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.