28th Jan 2022


Kosovo: the goal of Serbia's global 'vaccine diplomacy'

  • Large quantities of China's Sinopharm vaccines provide Serbia with a surplus of vaccines from other manufacturers. This creates an opportunity for president Aleksandar Vučić to donate vaccines, to increase soft power credentials and political sway (Photo: Reuters)
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Foreign policy wonks have already grown accustomed to the term vaccine diplomacy. The term refers to governments trying to increase their prestige and influence by donating vaccines to foreign countries in the age of Covid-19.

This policy has been associated with great powers like China, Russia and India. However, smaller countries like Serbia have also become engaged in their vaccine diplomacy.

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On 30 August 2021, Serbian foreign minister Nikola Selaković told the Serbian press that over 11 days, just in Africa, Serbia donated more than 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

Serbian vaccine diplomacy is no longer a campaign focused on Serbia's neighbourhood in the Balkans, but it went global as Serbia uses it to engage with members of the Non-Aligned Movement in Africa, the Middle East and Asia to pursue its foreign policy interests.

What are the reasons for this ambitious policy?

For starters, Serbia has the luxury to pursue it. Serbia has not been shy of getting Western-made, Russian and Chinese vaccines. China has been decisive on that front.

Of all the vaccines acquired by the Serbian government, the most available one is the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. According to the Serbian government, Belgrade has received 4.2 million vaccine doses from Beijing so far. Serbia signed an agreement with China on constructing a Sinopharm vaccine production facility in Serbia, and the production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in Serbia commenced in June.

As Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić confirmed during his March 2021 press conference with the Chinese ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, the Chinese side banned donating Sinopharm vaccines to third parties.

However, the large quantities of Sinopharm vaccines provide Serbia with a surplus of vaccines from other manufacturers. This creates an opportunity for Serbia to donate vaccines to increase its soft power credentials and political sway.

In early 2021, Serbia exercised its own vaccine diplomacy in the Balkans by donating Sputnik V, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca vaccines to its neighbours in Bosnia and Herzegovina Montenegro, North Macedonia and allowing foreign nationals to come to Serbia for inoculation.

New non-aligned axis

Now, Serbia is more ambitious as it has focused its efforts on the countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, all members of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organisation where former Yugoslavia use to be one of the leading countries.

The man spearheading this new campaign has been Serbian foreign minister Nikola Selaković, who has been a busy traveller recently. This time Russian Sputnik V vaccine is in the offering.

To Lebanon, Serbia donated 40,000 vaccines, with the first half already being delivered.

Africa was next on Selaković's travel list. To Zimbabwe, Serbia donated 30,000 vaccine doses, and Belgrade also plans to donate 65 tonnes of food products.

The list goes on. Selaković donated vaccines to Zambia (50,000 doses), Angola (50,000 doses), and Namibia (30,000 doses).

Serbian vaccine diplomacy goes to Asia too.

In a phone talk with his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son, Selaković promised vaccine donations to Vietnam. Serbia also plans to donate 50,000 doses of vaccines to Iran and 40,000 doses to Tunisia.

Belgrade has been generous, but there are also other reasons at play.

The first one is the alpha and omega of Serbian foreign policy, Kosovo. The countries that were the receivers of Serbian generosity have been the ones that did not recognise independent Kosovo.

Last year with the involvement of Donald Trump's administration Serbia and Kosovo reached a deal according to which Kosovo agreed to freeze its campaign of trying to join international institutions. Serbia did the same regarding its campaign to have other countries rescind Kosovo's independence. That moratorium is ending, and Serbia expects Kosovo to resume its campaign for new recognitions, so Belgrade jumps ahead.

Through vaccine diplomacy, Serbia tries to recover some of the markets it lost with the collapse of Yugoslavia. While Serbia does not have the global economic heft, one industry always needs new customers. That industry is Serbia's arms industry that has been recuperating from the traumas of Yugoslav collapse.

The countries that received vaccine donations to Serbia were invited to come to Belgrade in October for the 60th anniversary of the first Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Belgrade in 1961. During that time, the Serbian defence ministry will organise Partner 2021, a defence industry exposition in Belgrade. How convenient.

Bilateral ties can also be repaired through vaccine diplomacy.

Under the influence of Donald Trump, Serbia agreed to designate Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, as a terrorist organisation. In April 2021, Selaković visited Tehran to ensure Iran does not recognise Kosovo.

Serbia broke ranks with the EU very soon by sending an ambassador to Syria, another Iranian ally.

In that same spirit, vaccine donations to both Iran and Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major political player, are a way to ensure that their government does not recognize Kosovo and make up for blacklisting Hezbollah.

The crisis in Serbia's ties with the West plays a role. The EU is becoming increasingly aware of Serbia's decline in the country's rule of law under the leadership of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić.

In response to Vučić's grip over Serbian media, Twitter labelled several media outlets as "state-affiliated", prompting his angry reaction.

The Biden administration expects Serbia to recognise independent Kosovo, and it is becoming increasingly concerned over Belgrade's partnership with Moscow and Beijing. Through vaccine diplomacy, Belgrade makes global outreaches, challenging the West by showing that it is not isolated and has friends in distant places.

Serbian domestic politics is also part of the equation.

While the use of foreign policy for domestic gain is not a Serbian patent, it has become a norm for the incumbent Serbian government. By donating vaccines to developing countries, Serbian leadership projects image to its voters of an internationally respected government.

Indeed, commenting on Serbian vaccine donations to the developing world, Selaković stated: "Seven years ago, Serbia was at the edge of the abyss. Today, thanks to the responsible and visionary policies of president Aleksandar Vučić, that same Serbia is in a position to donate more than 200,000 vaccines to its friends."

The global vaccine diplomacy that Serbia has recently pursued might have been an overly ambitious enterprise for a small country like Serbia.

How much will it pay off to Belgrade? That remains to be seen. One thing is for certain. Serbian government does not lack boldness or innovativeness in pursuing its interests.

Author bio

Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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