Foreign policy buffs have already become 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 are also engaged in their vaccine diplomacy.
On August 30, 2021, Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković told the Serbian press that in 11 days in Africa alone, Serbia has donated more than 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines.
Serbian vaccine diplomacy is no longer a campaign focused on Serbia’s neighborhood in the Balkans, but has gone global as Serbia uses it to engage with members of the Non-Aligned Movement in Africa, in Middle East and Asia to pursue foreign policy interests.
What are the reasons for this ambitious policy?
For starters, Serbia has the luxury of suing him. Serbia has not hesitated to obtain vaccines manufactured in the West, Russia and China. China has been decisive on this front.
Of all the vaccines acquired by the Serbian government, the most available is the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm. According to the Serbian government, Belgrade has so far received 4.2 million doses of vaccine from Beijing. Serbia signed an agreement with China to build a Sinopharm vaccine production plant in Serbia, and production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in Serbia began in June.
As Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić confirmed during his March 2021 press conference with Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo, the Chinese side has banned the donation of 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 influence.
In early 2021, Serbia exercised its own vaccine diplomacy in the Balkans by donating Sputnik V, Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines to its neighbors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and allowing foreign nationals to come to Serbia to get vaccinated.
New axis not aligned
Serbia is now more ambitious because it has focused its efforts on countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, all members of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of which the former Yugoslavia was one. leading countries.
Spearheading this new campaign is Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković, who has recently been a frequent traveler. This time, the Russian Sputnik V vaccine is in the offer.
In Lebanon, Serbia donated 40,000 vaccines, the first half having already been delivered.
Africa was next on Selaković’s travel list. In Zimbabwe, Serbia has donated 30,000 doses of vaccine and Belgrade is also planning to donate 65 tonnes of food.
The list goes on. Selaković donated vaccines to Zambia (50,000 doses), Angola (50,000 doses) and Namibia (30,000 doses).
Serbian vaccine diplomacy also goes to Asia.
In a telephone interview with his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son, Selaković pledged donations of vaccines to Vietnam. Serbia also plans to donate 50,000 doses of vaccine to Iran and 40,000 doses to Tunisia.
Belgrade has been generous, but there are other reasons at stake as well.
The first is the alpha and omega of Serbian foreign policy, Kosovo. The countries which have benefited from Serbian generosity are those which have not recognized the independence of Kosovo.
Last year, with the involvement of Donald Trump’s administration, Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement whereby Kosovo agreed to freeze its campaign of attempted membership in international institutions. Serbia did the same with regard to its campaign for other countries to cancel Kosovo’s independence. This moratorium is coming to an end and Serbia expects Kosovo to resume its campaign for further reconnaissance, so Belgrade is moving forward.
Thanks to vaccine diplomacy, Serbia is trying to recover some of the markets it lost with the collapse of Yugoslavia. While Serbia does not have global economic clout, an industry always needs new customers. This industry is Serbia’s arms industry recovering from the trauma of the Yugoslav collapse.
Countries that received vaccine donations to Serbia were invited to visit Belgrade in October for the 60th anniversary of the first Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Belgrade in 1961. Meanwhile, the Serbian ministry of Defense will organize Partner 2021, a defense industry exhibition in Belgrade. How convenient.
Bilateral ties can also be mended through vaccine diplomacy.
Under the influence of Donald Trump, Serbia agreed to designate Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, as a terrorist organization. In April 2021, Selaković visited Tehran to make sure Iran does not recognize Kosovo.
Serbia very quickly broke ranks with the EU by sending an ambassador to Syria, another Iranian ally.
In the same vein, 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 to compensate for the Hezbollah blacklist.
The crisis in Serbia’s relations with the West is playing a role. The EU is increasingly aware of the decline of the rule of law in Serbia under the leadership of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
In response to Vučić’s grip on Serbian media, Twitter called several media outlets “affiliated with the state”, eliciting his angry reaction.
The Biden administration expects Serbia to recognize independent Kosovo, and it is increasingly concerned about Belgrade’s partnership with Moscow and Beijing. Through vaccine diplomacy, Belgrade is campaigning globally, defying the West by showing that it is not isolated and that it has friends in distant places.
Serbian domestic politics are also part of the equation.
Although the use of foreign policy for domestic purposes is not a Serbian patent, it has become a norm for the current Serbian government. By donating vaccines to developing countries, Serbian leaders are projecting the image of an internationally respected government to their constituents.
Indeed, commenting on Serbian vaccine donations to the developing world, Selaković said: “Seven years ago, Serbia was on the brink. Today, thanks to the responsible and visionary policies of President Aleksandar Vučić, this same Serbia is able to donate more than 200,000 vaccines to its friends. ”
The global vaccine diplomacy that Serbia has recently pursued may have been too ambitious an undertaking for a small country like Serbia.
How much will this earn in Belgrade? It remains to be seen. One thing is certain. The Serbian government is neither daring nor innovative in pursuing its interests.