A successful influence operation requires a willing ally on the ground.
#CEEDisinfoWeek is series of articles highlighting the current disinformation landscape in Central and Eastern Europe, and how external and home-grown disinformation has adapted to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is January 16, 2021. An airplane lands at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport carrying 1 million doses of the Chinese-produced Sinopharm vaccine, shipped in 10 containers. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is at the airport, accompanied by Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar, the director of Serbia's principal intelligence service Bratislav Gasic, and the Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo. This is not the first batch of vaccines to have arrived in Belgrade. In December 2020, a shipment of 4,800 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines arrived, making Serbia the first country in the Balkans to acquire Western jabs. Later that month, the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine also arrived in Serbia. Neither of those shipments received the high-profile greetings that the Chinese vaccine apparently warranted.
For China, Serbia has become another place to exercise its "vaccine diplomacy." For Belgrade, the acquisition of Chinese vaccines is motivated not just by health requirements, but by its foreign policy and domestic politics.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, it became a competition in great power prestige who would contain the pandemic domestically most effectively. If official figures are to be believed, China appears to be winning, as it claims to have managed to rein in the pandemic and have its economy recover from the fallout. Subsequently, China attempted to repair its impaired global reputation — after all, the virus originated in Wuhan — by making itself out to be a reliable donor and supplier of medical equipment, embarking on a policy known as "mask diplomacy". The outcome of this policy had been mixed, as many countries were skeptical of Chinese intentions and blamed its regime for the outbreak.
While it is also too early to judge its effectiveness, China has now pivoted into a new policy of "vaccine diplomacy," which entails competition with Western and Russian manufacturers of vaccines. Wherever China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has put down roots, there China is pushing its vaccines — in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Serbia, which thanks to its strategic geography plays a significant part in the Balkan section of the BRI, was inevitably going to be the recipient as well.
The rationale guiding Serbia is more nuanced and complex. While the mortality ratio in Serbia stands at 1.01 percent, the fatality rate among medical staff is high. As of mid-January, 72 doctors have died compared to 43 in the much more populous United Kingdom. Even before the pandemic, Serbia’s medical field was being depleted of talent, with doctors fleeing abroad for better opportunities. Updated data on recent deaths among medical workers is unavailable at the time of writing, but the situation is undoubtedly serious.
In 2020, Serbia donated two million Euros for vaccine research. In November 2020, President Vucic stated that through the international Covax system, Serbia expects the delivery of 1.8 million units of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Serbia is also expected to sign a contract with Poland and AstraZeneca on the delivery of 800,000 vaccine doses. At the end of December 2020, the European Commission adopted 70 million Euros package enabling the Western Balkans early access to COVID-19 vaccines.
However, it is clear that despite these positive statements, Serbia and the rest of the Balkans are falling far behind Western Europe in getting the number of vaccines badly needed for mass vaccination. The EU is also struggling with delays in vaccine deliveries from Pfizer and AstraZeneca. President Vucic publicly acknowledged as much: "It is true that I am worried and I don't hide it, because today it is more difficult to get vaccines than nuclear weapons." Vucic also compared the scramble for doses to the scene on the sinking Titanic, where everyone wanted "a boat for themselves," particularly the rich. Yes, Serbia was the first country in Europe to approve the Chinese vaccine, but given the dire state of affairs, one can understand why they did.
Still, beyond public health imperatives, the acquisition of Chinese vaccines is also a part of Serbia’s current foreign policy, which is premised on a balancing between Western and non-Western powers. Serbia tries to diversify partnerships to try and extract concessions and benefits from multiple powers at the same time. In economic terms, China makes 6.61 percent of net foreign direct investments in Serbia, after the EU (72.27 percent) and Russia (11.21 percent). China has also become the second-largest military donor to Serbia after the United States, supplying Belgrade with advanced weaponry like drones. The fight against COVID-19 fits into the same strategic rubric for Serbia: never put all your eggs in the same basket.
The balancing also helps Belgrade strengthen its bargaining power with the West. At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the EU made a short-sighted decision to ban the export of protective medical equipment outside the EU. President Vucic responded by saying that "European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper." In the same breath, he called China "the only country that can help us." Serbia’s embrace of the Chinese "mask diplomacy" back then was motivated by the desire to embarrass the EU to step up aid, which in the end, indeed, happened. The same stands for "vaccine diplomacy".
Domestic considerations also drive Belgrade's conduct. Serbia’s leaders have long marketed China to voters as a game-changing foreign investor, and having acculturated the public to this idea, now regularly use China as proof that they are bringing material benefits to the country. This was on display in March 2020 when Vucic greeted Chinese medical aid by kissing the Chinese flag. The reception at the airport was part of the same dynamic. And while the more Western-leaning Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic received the Pfizer vaccine, Russia sympathizing Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin and Parliamentary Speaker Ivica Dacic took the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine, President Vucic himself said he would most likely take the Chinese vaccine.
The biggest loser of the Chinese "vaccine diplomacy" campaign in Serbia is the EU. China has once again seized the opening left by the EU's slow strategic reflexes, and it scored big in the country that is an EU membership candidate. The mood in Serbia is very troubling for the Europeans. Over 58 percent of Serbs believe that the country will never join the EU, while 87 percent believe that Chinese influence in Serbia is positive. While it remains true that the future of the Western Balkans is in the EU, the EU has taken both Serbia and the region for granted for a very long time. China is pushing on an open door. There’s still time to repair the damage, but time should not be wasted.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a Ph.D. 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)
February 12, 2021