In late March, when global demand for COVID-19 vaccines far outpaced supply, Serbia opened its borders to citizens from neighboring countries to be vaccinated in their capital city of Belgrade. Thousands of people from North Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania poured into the city to take advantage of this opportunity. As early as January, Serbia began giving tens of thousands of vaccines and PPE to neighboring countries. Two big questions emerged from Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy. First, how did Serbia obtain enough vaccines to give away so many to non-Serbians? Second, how could this vaccine diplomacy impact Serbia’s geopolitical reputation?
How did Serbia acquire enough vaccines to offer extra doses to non-citizens?
Serbia cast a wider net than other European countries when seeking to secure a vaccine supply by trading with both eastern and western states. Unlike other European nations, which almost exclusively relied upon the COVAX scheme, Serbia made deals to purchase China’s Sinovac vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Serbia’s deals to purchase vaccines from both western and eastern powers illustrates the county’s long history of straddling the East and West.
Serbia’s cultural identity has long dynamically flowed between eastern and western culture and politics, dating back to when Serbs rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and aligned themselves with Western Europe and the United States. Following World War II, as part of the Yugoslavia Republic, Serbia continued to balance both eastern and western interests during the Cold War. The Yugoslavia Republic was a communist state, but independent from Russia’s Soviet Union, and it adopted less repressive and more decentralized governments compared to other Eastern European states. In modern times, Serbia has sought to join the European Union, but has yet to be added since it first began the ascension process in 2003. Being continually excluded and rebuffed by the EU is wearing the patience of Serbia; their exclusion has prevented Serbia from cementing a fully Western European national identity, and encouraged the country to continue looking to other world powers for allyship, such as Russia and China.
Vaccination sourcing from Russia and China, in addition to the EU, may indicate these nation’s growing influence on Serbia and the Balkan region. Importing China’s Sinovac is consistent with increasing Chinese influence in Serbia and other formerly communist nations in Eastern Europe. China has managed to steadily grow its influence in this region through multilateral development investments, and initiatives to build partnerships between journalists, academic institutions, and other public service sectors. Similarly, importing Russia’s Sputnik V seems like another example of Russia using trade and political allyship to win influence in the region. Russia advocated favorably for Serbia at the UN during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and invests heavily in the country’s energy sector. Serbia and Russia’s relationship seems to have grown stronger in recent years as Russia may see an opportunity to win back some influence in the formerly socialist nation as the EU continues to exclude Serbia and wane in global power.
Two illustrations of Serbia slowly leaning towards the pull of Russia and China’s influence stand out. The first came when Serbian President Vučić visited Bosnia to deliver a shipment of vaccines. Vučić noted that his country had yet to receive its order of the COVAX vaccine promised by the EU. This slight towards the EU by Serbia’s president reflects Serbian’s growing skepticism of joining the EU; support for joining the multinational organization among Serbians has fallen more than 20% since 2009. The second came in May, when Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic said China’s vaccine diplomacy was a show of China’s humanity, not geopolitics.
It seems as though Serbia’s vaccination transactions are accelerating its shift away from the West and realignment with its eastern identity.
What could be the geopolitical impact of Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy in the Balkan region?
Offering vaccines to citizens of neighboring nations could enhance Serbia’s soft power in the Western Balkans. Following the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Serbia has been characterized as the initial aggressor, and battered loser, the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II. Offering vaccines to the citizens of nations from the other side of the 1990s conflict is an opportunity to change that negative image. Vuk Vukanovic, who served as a diplomat to Serbia, noted this could be the “first time that the countries of the region look to Serbia as a role model in a long time.”
There is significant skepticism though that Serbia’s vaccine diplomacy is a purely altruistic move for the purposes of global health. Some critics argue that Serbia is leveraging vaccines to secure a nationalistic agenda. These critics point to President Vučić’s autocratic and expansionist tendencies, and see the offering of vaccines as a way to create reliance upon Belgrade and hide undemocratic governance. They believe offering vaccines is part of Vučić’s larger “Serbian World” policy, aimed at unifying Serbs in the Balkans under one Serbian state. Many statements and political moves by Vučić are raising fears of an unchecked and nationalistic Serbian administration, which harken back to the type of nationalism and rhetoric preceding the wars with Croatia and Bosnia, as well as the Bosnian genocide in the early 1990’s.
Critics also point out that Serbia is not making a huge sacrifice by administering these vaccines to foreigners, because they would likely have gone to waste if not offered to neighboring nations. This is because of widespread distrust of the vaccines by Serbians following several high profile celebrities saying they were skeptical of the vaccine’s efficacy.
Whether Serbia’s intentions in extending vaccinations to neighboring populations are altruistic for the purposes of global inoculation, or an expansionist maneuver, it has advanced the country’s soft power and influence in the region. Coupled with the nation’s increasing alignment with China and Russia, this could entice other Western Balkan nations to also look to these powers if the EU and United States continue to overlook the region.
Author Biography: Meredith Gusky is a Senior Moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief and a rising 2L at the George Washington University Law school pursuing a dual degree with the Elliott School of International Affairs.