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Serbia’s winning fight against COVID-19 raises questions about ‘vaccine diplomacy’

Serbia has had considerable success in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with the third-highest rate in Europe; supply is mostly from China and Russia. While Serbia's efforts have received high praise, experts are warning about unprecedented, growing Chinese influence in the country and the wider region through so-called 'vaccine diplomacy.' Jorgen Samson and Aleksandar Papajic report from Serbia.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The country of Serbia has had considerable success in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with the third-highest rate of vaccinations in Europe; the supply is mostly from China and Russia.

    While Serbia's efforts have received high praise, experts are warning about unprecedented and growing Chinese influence in the country and the wider region through so-called vaccine diplomacy.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jorgen Samso and videographer Aleksandar Papajic report from Serbia.Jorgen Samso: Here at the main vaccination center in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, citizens are streaming in to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Among them is Dalton Curanovic. The 49-year-old taxi driver is getting his first of two vaccine shots.

  • Dalton Curanovic:

    It's a happy day for me. I will finish with this suspicion about diseases and COVID.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    Vaccines in Serbia are offered free to every citizen over 18 years of age. This is the largest vaccination center in the country. Serbian health authorities say between 7,000 to 10,000 people get immunized here every day. As nations across the world scramble to inoculate their populations, there are so many vaccines here, Curanovic was able to pick which one he wanted to receive.

    The vaccines on offer here and in centers across Serbia are the Russian Sputnik Five, western developed vaccines such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and then there's the Chinese Sinopharm, which by far exceeds the others in availability.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    And you only chose Sinopharm?

  • Dalton Curanovic:

    Yes, it's my choice.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    Why?

  • Dalton Curanovic:

    I don't know, I believe in the Chinese.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    Serbia has a population of around seven million citizens. It was the first country in Europe to approve and start using the Chinese produced Sinopharm vaccine. By the beginning of March, two million Chinese vaccines had arrived here. That's far greater than what Western pharmaceuticals or Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, could provide.

    Because of the Chinese vaccine deliveries, by mid-March, Serbia had vaccinated more adults than any of the other 27 countries in the European Union, becoming continental Europe's best vaccinator. The country raced ahead with inoculations at double the rate of Spain and Germany, internationally trailing only behind Israel, the U.K. and the U.S.

    Top level Serbian ministers were among the first to get injections. The minister of Internal Affairs received the Russian vaccine. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, widely believed to be the western face of the Serbian government, got the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The minister of health got his injection with a Chinese vaccine. Vuc Vuksanovic is a scholar of international relations at the London School of Economics and the think tank Belgrade Security Forum.

  • Vuk Vuksanovic:

    The prevailing foreign policy strategy for Serbia is to balance and play western and non-Western powers against each other. So to avoid putting all your eggs in a single basket.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    By March, Serbia hadn't received a single Western vaccine through the European Union or the International COVAX program. Its tens of thousands of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were secured independently from manufacturers. Russia sent hundreds of thousands of vaccines, but nowhere near what China could offer.

  • Vuk Vuksanovic:

    China has become Serbia's best friend in the east. They literally replaced Russia as the primary partner outside the western world. Historically, we haven't seen anything like this. In the past, Serbia and Beijing had healthy political relations and good political understanding, but nothing that can suggest this level of collaboration or this level of influence by Beijing in Serbia.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    Part of the answer to why China is interested in Serbia lies in geography. Situated at a crossroads between the east and the West, Serbia has become the bridgehead to Europe in China's ambitious mega infrastructure project called the Belt and Road Initiative. Or for short B-R-I. It's the countries along this modern day Silk Road that have been targeted for Beijing's so-called vaccine diplomacy.

  • Yanzhong Huang:

    By practicing the vaccine diplomacy, I think Beijing hopes it can facilitate the implementation of the B-R-I Initiative that is, after all, the most important foreign policy initiative Beijing launched in the 21st century.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    China's President Xi Jinping has called his country's vaccines, quote, a global public good. By March this year, Chinese vaccines had been rolled out globally in 25 countries. For China, Serbia is a launching pad to access to the wider European market. This high speed rail project, set to be finished by mid 2024, is financed with the $4.7 billion in primarily Chinese loans.

    Serbia isn't just receiving railroads and vaccines. Chinese loans are also financing the construction of new highways and bridges like this one across the river Danube. At a recent press conference, President Aleksandar Vucic presented new Chinese investments and infrastructure projects. He also recalled the time early this year when he asked the Chinese ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, for vaccines.

  • Aleksandar Vucic:

    I was ill-mannered and bold. I had to ask from the Chinese something that is not normal for them to fulfill. Can we, after getting a million vaccines, quickly get another 500,000 and another 500,000? I kept insisting and as you see, they literally fulfilled all our wishes.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    The vaccine deliveries from China has put a partnership with the European Union to the test. Serbia is only an EU candidate country, but expected its future European family to help with the most important weapon in the fight against the pandemic. Speaking at a conference in early February, the French president recalled receiving a message from his Serbian counterpart about Chinese vaccine deliveries.

  • Emmanuel Macron:

    The Serbian president was here to get access to vaccine, thanks to Chinese cooperation. To be very direct with you, with clear and genuine remark, these guys are more efficient than your COVAX initiative, the European Union and my very good friends.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    The EU has helped elsewhere. It build crucial infrastructure for the vaccine campaign in Serbia, hired 200 medical workers and shipped a fleet of special COVID ambulance vehicles. The U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Anthony F. Godfrey, waved off China's growing influence in Serbia.

  • Anthony F. Godfrey:

    Frankly, the government of Serbia has a right to be very proud of how well it's done in procuring vaccines. Serbia is an independent country with its own foreign policy, its own economic policy.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    He stressed that most of Serbia's economy remains tied not to the east but to the west.

  • Anthony F. Godfrey:

    It's my view, and the government of Serbia's view that Serbia's future lies with Europe and 70% of its economy is focused there. It's my hope, though, that our Serbian partners will see the value of engaging with companies that are transparent that answer to stockholders and boards of directors rather than party officials.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    The price of the Chinese vaccines, as well as the cost of Russian and Western vaccines, is a state secret. The Serbian government, as well as the Chinese ambassador to Serbia, did not respond to interview requests. At the press conference, though, President Vucic fired back at accusations of Beijing's growing influence in his country.

  • Aleksandar Vucic:

    Did China do anything bad to us? Have we been under any political or economic or other kinds of pressures? I don't care what anyone says. I'm interested in what Serbian citizens will say. Serbia is on the European path, but yes, Serbia is collaborating well with China and we will collaborate even better and we will collaborate even more.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    With seemingly plenty of vaccines to go around already, Belgrade ventured into its own regional vaccine diplomacy, donating batches to its struggling neighbors. In mid-February, the first vaccines to arrive in north Macedonia came from Serbia, and another Serbian donation arrived in Bosnia in early March. Back at the vaccination center, Curanovic is getting his injection. Like many others here today, he has only praise for the government,

  • Dalton Curanovic:

    They did really well, and I salute them for that. My government has worked the way it should for the people. I'm satisfied as a citizen in this country. Who are our real friends? That's Russia and China, because they sent us the vaccines.

  • Jorgen Samso:

    By mid-March, Serbia had fully vaccinated 15% of its adult population. If it becomes the first country in continental Europe to reach full mass vaccination, it will be largely thanks to Chinese vaccine diplomacy injected one shot at a time.

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