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Geopolitics and vaccines in the Balkans

February 13, 2021

North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo have not received doses of vaccines. Regional politics and vaccine nationalism seem more important than public health concerns.

vials of two COVID-19 vaccines
Serbia was the first European country to use the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine (right). Other Balkan countries are likely to follow suitImage: Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images

It's like a trip down memory lane for people old enough to remember the Cold War. Back then, the big question was whether the Soviet Union or the United States had more nuclear bombs. The 21st-century question is: Who's drawing the short stick when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines? 

And then there is the additional question of which vaccine is best: Russia's, China's, or those from Britain, Germany and the US? And what risks are there to relations with the United States or the EU if officials were to call up their counterparts in Moscow or Beijing — or both — to acquire, at least for the time being, a few doses? 

Such debates are more theoretical than practical in the Balkans, where people have had as much real exposure to COVID-19 vaccines as they had to atomic bombs during the Cold War: next to none. North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo have not received doses of vaccines so far. And no one knows when they will, although governments have promised that shipments are on their way and will arrive by the end of the month.

People waiting to be vaccinated at a health center in Serbia
The delay in receiving Western-made vaccines means that a number of countries are now turning to China and RussiaImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

No countries in Europe need vaccines as badly as North Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro, which are at the top of the list when it comes to COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

Albania has managed to secure 2,000 BioNTech-Pfizer doses for a population of 2.8 million people. Eight hundred of those doses came from anonymous EU doctor while the rest came directly from Pfizer.  

What's Serbia's story?

The proportion of the population who have received vaccines in Serbia is among the highest in Europe, with more than a million doses of COVID-19 vaccines secured from China and Russia and 500,000 people reportedly inoculated so far. 

The country's geopolitical positioning gives it something of an advantage as a candidate for EU membership, as well as a historical ally to Russia and China. 

Other governments had intended to wait for vaccine shipments from Britain, Germany and the United States. They will continue to work together with the World Health Organization and its COVAX initiative [a global initiative to provide equal and fair access of vaccines worldwide — the ed.] and rely on the promised solidarity of the European Union, but have since become disillusioned. "Serbia is buying vaccines from Russia," Kreshnik Bekteshi, North Macedonia's economy minister, told the broadcaster TV21, "but we are oriented towards the EU." 

All vaccines 'welcome'

The NATO members Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro were at first not interested in the vaccines from China and Russia until it became clear that they could not count on their allies and domestic pressure increased. 

A vaccine center in Belgrade
No countries in Europe need vaccines as badly as North Macedonia, Bosnia and MontenegroImage: Miodrag Soric/DW

"Forget bureaucracy and give the green light to Russian and Chinese vaccines because everyone's welcome," Tatjana Gurzanova, a doctor in North Macedonia, wrote on her Facebook page.

Montenegro has now approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and is awaiting a shipment of 50,000 doses. Earlier this week North Macedonia's health minister said a contract for 200,000 doses had been signed with the Chinese producer Sinopharm. Meanwhile, Bosnia has also now started rolling out the Russian vaccine.

"I can confirm that we've been in consultation with our strategic partners at NATO and in Washington," said Zoran Zaev, North Macedonia's prime minister, "and have come to the conclusion that the procurement of Chinese vaccines isn't a geopolitical issue but rather the sovereign right of every country."

Vaccine nationalism has given way to vaccine tourism. Every day, Bosnians — be they Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks — , as well as Albanian and Serbian Kosovars, Montenegrins and Macedonians travel to Serbia in the hopes that they will received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Serbia looks east for vaccine

Head shot of a bearded man (Boris Georgievski) in a dark blue blazer
Boris Georgievski Boris Georgievski is head of Deutsche Welle's Macedonian Service.