Hundreds of elderly Serbs patiently wait outside one of Belgrade's vaccination centers, set up in a vacant trade fair hall near the Sava River. Sometimes, they have to wait for hours before they’re let inside for their pre-booked appointment. Unlike most Belgrade locals, those queuing here are wearing masks. Once inside, patients are welcomed by nurses, who lead to them to one of three dozen booths to get vaccinated. Most receive China's Sinopharm vaccine.
Beijing has sent a million doses of this inactivated vaccine (or killed vaccine) to Serbia. The vaccine has several advantages: It is cheaper to produce and less perishable than the mRNA vaccines developed by BioNTech-Pfizer or Moderna. However, the Sinopharm vaccine has an efficacy of only 75% to 80%, according to reports from China, Bahrain, Brazil and Peru.
"The best vaccine is the one we have readily at our disposal," says the Serbian minister of public administration and local self-government, Marija Obradovic. Today, she has come to the inoculation center to get immunized herself. Obradovic estimates that some 35,000 vaccine doses are being administered each day. As of Sunday evening, 172,000 Serbs had received the jab.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had personally awaited the delivery of the vaccine doses at Belgrade airport, expressing his gratitude toward China in front of rolling cameras. In Serbia’s pro-government press, Vucic presented himself as the nation’s savior, tirelessly negotiating with foreign governments and authorities to secure coronavirus vaccines.
While trumpeting Vucic's alleged accomplishment, however, Serbian media has failed to report on the country’s undeveloped medical infrastructure. And neither has it mentioned that many Serbian distrust the country’s official coronavirus statistics. According to state sources, 384,000 of the country’s 7 million citizens have contracted the illness, with 3,886 having died either directly or indirectly from the virus.
President Vucic has promised to set up factories to begin producing vaccines domestically — as was done when the former Yugoslavia existed. According to media reports, the required equipment will be provided by Moscow. Serbia intends to manufacture Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Until production capacities have been ramped up, Serbia is to receive hundreds of thousands of doses from Moscow.
The delivery of Sinopharm vaccine doses to Serbia is a major PR coup for China, according to political scientist Jaksa Scekic. He says that while Western states have managed to supply only a few thousand Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses in the past week, China has gone all out.
Scekic says many Serbs now view China as a true friend who has come through in tough times. He says both China and Russia are instrumentalizing vaccine deliveries for political purposes. Governments of EU member states, in contrast, are forced to coordinate with other EU members and heed economic considerations.
Major power rivalry
Danijel Pantic largely shares this interpretation. Pantic says the fight to combat COVID-19 has unleashed "rivalry among the major powers." He says many Serbs regard China as leading the way.
At the same time, he says, Serbs are losing trust in the EU's ability to take decisive action. "We are facing an existential crisis," says Pantic. "We now need outside help as we rarely have before — but that help is not being provided by the West but by China and Russia."
Serbia and Albania are the only countries in the Western Balkans to have launched an inoculation program. Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia are still waiting for any large vaccine deliveries from abroad.
Looking east for help
China is attempting to capitalize on the situation, framing itself as an effective partner that does not let democratic principles and human rights standards get in the way as the EU does. Daniel Pantic says China’s involvement in southeastern European infrastructure projects left a good impression. These days, ever more young Serbs are leaning Mandarin, according to the analyst. Pantic says many Serbs are starting to doubt their country will become a full EU member. And, he adds, few in Serbia would mind the country joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) instead.
Other countries in central and southeastern Europe are also reorienting themselves eastward. Even the EU member state Hungary, as well as Turkey, are hoping to receive Chinese and Russian assistance in combating the pandemic, says Pantic.
Reports have meanwhile confirmed the first case in Serbia of the new and possibly more dangerous coronavirus mutation that was first observed in the United Kingdom. A woman who had flown from London to Belgrade tested positive for the variant. Even so, the Serbian government does not plan another lockdown: Restaurants, cafes and shopping malls will remain open.