The Belgrade Boost: Serbia’s strategic vaccine diplomacy

As developed countries announce their goals to offer the third round of the COVID-19 vaccine to their citizens, plans to send life-saving doses to developing countries are delayed further and further. 

“Thousands will die this month and for the foreseeable future,” laments former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown. “Not because there are too few vaccines being produced but because they are being hoarded in places that now need them least.”

An unlikely figure has emerged in the wake of the West’s reluctance to donate vaccines: Serbian President Alexandar Vucic. Since March 2021, Serbia has donated hundreds of thousands of doses to other countries. The small Balkan nation first embarked on this campaign on a regional scale, sending vaccines to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia. More recent efforts have sent vaccines further afield — to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. 

While many neighboring countries continue to face urgent vaccine shortages, Serbia  finds itself in a unique situation. Residents can choose between four coronavirus vaccines. Early in the pandemic, the country authorized emergency use of the Chinese-produced Sinovac vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, along with the AstraZeneca and Pfizer shots. This freedom of choice left the country with a surplus of doses, leading Vucic to seize the opportunity for vaccine diplomacy.

In an unusual moment of regional harmony, Vucic donated 5,000 doses to Bosnia’s Croat-Muslim condeferation in March. Standing alongside Bosnian political leaders on the tarmac of Sarajevo’s airport, which had been besieged by Serb forces some 25 years earlier, Vucic announced: “Serbia is acting as a friend and a neighbor.” 

It goes without saying that Bosnia desperately needed the AstraZeneca shots: only 13% of Bosnians are fully vaccinated, and the country currently suffers the third-highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world. Yet, the regional donations certainly have a deeper geopolitical significance. 

Serbia and Bosnia fought on opposing ends during the Balkan Wars, and the intense nationalism that sparked the fighting over 30 years ago remains an active threat to regional peace. Regarding donations to African states, Vucic has only given vaccines to countries that do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state. Belgrade claims Kosovo as part of Serbia, but Kosovo, largely made up of ethinc Albanians, declared their independence in 2008. 

Perhaps the donations are a show of goodwill, but the gifted vaccines are also an easy way for Vucic to score an easy political win by flexing his power in front of political opponents and simultaneously rewarding states for supporting his rejection of Kosovo independence.

In addition to donating extra vaccines to countries of strategic importance, Vucic also recently announced plans to transform Serbia into a vaccine producing country. Serbian allies China and Russia recently donated millions of Euros to kickstart the fledgling Serbian pharmaceutical industry, with the hope that the domestic vaccine production efforts will one day be able to supplement Serbia’s overseas vaccine diplomacy efforts.

In a June 2021 event with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Vucic announced that his country “will be starting to produce 4 million [doses] of Sputnik V vaccine” in Serbian pharmaceutical factories. One month later, the Serbian government publicized news of a multimillion-dollar Chinese and Emerati investment to build a Sinopharm vaccine factory near Belgrade. The facility will produce up to 24 million doses of the Chinese vaccine monthly, and Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar pledges that surplus doses will be made available to other states in the region.

Serbia welcomed this investment with open arms — literally. Vucic took the Chinese vaccine on public television in April 2021, thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping and his “Chinese brothers” for their benevolence. Yet, just as mixed motives exist behind Serbia’s donation of vaccines, China’s investment in Serbia is also strategic. Serbia is a key partner in China’s Belt and Road initiative, and Beijing uses this relationship as an important inroad to Europe. 

Neither the Sinopharm nor the Sputnik V vaccines are currently authorized by European Union health authorities. As the 27-member bloc continues to loosen travel restrictions, the popularity of these two vaccines in Serbia could pose challenges for Serbians who wish to travel through Europe. In any case, Serbia’s new vaccine factories will have an immediate impact on a region falling far behind the average European inoculation rate.

Recommended Readings

  • “Serbia’s winning fight against COVID-19 raises questions about ‘vaccine diplomacy’” — PBS
  • “Work Starts in Serbia on Chinese Sinopharm Vaccines Factory” — Balkan Insight
  • “China Is Changing Serbia From the Inside” — The Diplomat

Leave a Reply