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Coronavirus: Serbia provokes Kosovo with vaccination scheme

January 28, 2021

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic recently announced a vaccination program in Kosovo without consulting leaders in Pristina. Officials there have called it illegal, and locals are very confused.

Kosovo's Health Minister Armend Zemaj
Kosovo's Health Minister Armend Zemaj says he has been kept in the dark about Serbia's supposed vaccination campaignImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

The majority of the population in North Mitrovica, on the banks of the Ibar River, are Serbs, as is the case in northern Kosovo generally. For weeks, rumors have been swirling that unlike the majority Albanian parts of the country, a new coronavirus vaccination campaign is set to start here — one funded and coordinated by the Serbian government. But is it really true?

On the western outskirts of Mitrovica, a grumpy looking, black-clad security officer stands guard in front of a hospital. The Serbian flag flies above it. When we ask him if we can talk to somebody about the rumored vaccination scheme, he growls, "Nobody here is providing any information," then he calls for backup. A woman in a white lab coat also comes out and shouts at reporters: "There's nothing for you to see here. Go away"

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has touted his country's coronavirus vaccine program in Kosovo, but does it exist?Image: Reuters/M. Djurica

New dispute between Belgrade and Pristina

As countries across Europe and the world scramble to acquire as many COVID-19 vaccine doses as possible, Kosovo, too, is preparing a vaccination campaign. The Health Ministry in Pristina previously announced the country's vaccination program would begin in February.

However, the situation seems to be different in the north, where Kosovar authorities have very little influence. Speaking at a military airbase near the Serbian capital Belgrade at the end of last year, President Aleksandar Vucic announced that his country would soon begin a vaccination campaign in neighboring northern Kosovo. He said the first to receive the vaccine would be elderly Serbs over 75, then everyone else. Leaders in Pristina have yet to be officially briefed on Serbia's plans.

Vucic's announcement triggered a flurry of excitement in Kosovo. By making it, the Serbian president was directly infringing on the sovereignty of an independent country recognized by most European Union (EU) states — and that, at a time when the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is already at an ebb and the EU-facilitated dialogue between them remains on ice.

Serbian-run health center in Mitrovica
Residents in northern Kosovo get their healthcare in hospitals like this Serbian-run health center in North MitrovicaImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Medically dangerous and illegal

But Vucic's announcement was also more than just a political provocation. Should there actually be a vaccination program, it could well be dangerous in medical terms — it is entirely unclear which vaccine the Serbian president was actually talking about. Nor is it clear under what circumstances the doses would be administered or whether some vaccinations had already taken place. If people have already been vaccinated, it would mean that Serbia had violated Kosovar import regulations. Moreover, if authorities in Kosovo were kept in the dark about the origin of the vaccine, its efficacy and side effects, the entire process would be illegal.

Kosovar Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has already declared the Serbian vaccination campaign illegal and Health Minister Armend Zemaj has ordered an enquiry. He told DW, however, that he had not been able to obtain any official information from Belgrade and said Serbia had "politicized the vaccination campaign." He raised concerns that Kosovo's Serbian minority had been duped into thinking something was being done to protect their health, when in fact it might be harmful. "I have instructed the drug regulatory authority and health inspectors to work with the police and the Public Prosecutor's Office to investigate the issue," said Zemaj.

Parallel healthcare systems

The situation comes at a time when the country is already divided over healthcare. The north, for instance, essentially has a parallel health system. There, hospitals and medical centers bill customers through Serbian health insurance companies — meaning a foreign country is determining how people get medical care.

The explosiveness of the situation became apparent on Monday, when hundreds of doctors, caregivers and nurses demonstrated in front of the Kosovo Public Prosecutor's Office in Mitrovica over their "inhumane treatment" by the Kosovar authorities. The demonstration was sparked by the government's investigation into Vucic's announced vaccination campaign. Protesters claim they were the victims of heavy-handed and arbitrary interrogations.

Mitrovica Kindergarten teacher Jelena Vucinic
Mitrovica Kindergarten teacher Jelena Vucinic tells DW that no one she knows has been vaccinatedImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Has anybody actually been vaccinated?

In the end, it is entirely unclear whether a large-scale vaccination campaign is actually underway in northern Kosovo, or if the whole is just propaganda spouted by the Serbian president. At least that is the impression one gets speaking with locals.

One of those with whom DW spoke is Jelena Vucinic. Sitting in a cafe in Mitrovica, the 42-year-old kindergarten teacher says: "Personally, I don't know anything about the vaccination campaign. Nobody in my family has been vaccinated, nor have any of my friends or acquaintances. I've just read in the local media that the vaccinations have begun." That sentiment was echoed by many others, none of whom knew anyone who had been inoculated.

Neither the Serbian government nor the Health Ministry in Belgrade have responded to DW's requests for information. At this point, only one thing is clear: The pandemic has merely deepened ethnic divides in the still unresolved conflict between Kosovo and Serbia.

Serbia looks east for vaccine

This article has been translated from German.