Serbia prepares application for EU solidarity fund to ‘cover the costs’ of coronavirus

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

Serbia will apply for funding from the EU Solidarity Fund “to receive additional grants for covering the costs of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19”, said European Integration Minister of European and National IPA Coordinator Jadranka Joksimovic on Thursday (4 June).

The fund would “protect health workers, secure better conditions for treating patients and offer aid to ‘vulnerable groups,'” the minister said after chairing a meeting on Thursday of the government’s Special Working Group for preparing an application for EU solidarity funds, where a draft version of the application was unveiled.

“The draft version of the application was presented at the meeting and it will describe the course of the pandemic, the measures and activities that have been undertaken to prevent the spread of the disease and the public expenditures that arose from their implementation,” a statement wrote.

If the European Commission approved these funds for Serbia, they would cover a portion of the overall amount spent by Serbia during the four-month period that followed the first activities to stem the spread of coronavirus, the statement added.

Meanwhile, all Serbian citizens without symptoms were able as of 1 June to take a rapid non-compulsory serology test to detect COVID-19 antibodies, the national crisis staff announced on 27 May. The test would only cost €10 and will only be performed following a personal request as it remains non-compulsory.

Gatherings of up to 1,000 people will also be allowed from 1 June onwards.

When it comes to international cooperation, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told the international conference “The World After Coronavirus”, which took place on Friday (29 May) that Serbia would not turn against its allies who provided aid during the pandemic.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said at the opening of the international conference The World after the Coronavirus on May 29 that Serbia would stay the European course, but would never turn against the allies who provided aid amid the pandemic.

During the conference, the president also said that while he expects Serbia to bounce back quickly, he is expecting assistance and solidarity from Germany, China, the US and Russia.


As of Sunday (31 May), Serbia recorded 11,517 cases of coronavirus. Of these cases, 6,910 have recovered, while 246 have died (2.13%). So far, 261,266 people have been tested.

It is possible that the coronavirus might have been present in Serbia as early as last December. But if that were the case, its circulation would have been quite sporadic, epidemiologist Predrag Kon said on 6 May. “Had it been circulating en masse, we would have detected it sooner,” Kon told the RTS public service. 

Over the past days, two new hotspots have emerged in Serbia, according to media reports and announcements by the COVID-19 Crisis Headquarters. These include the Yura factory in Leskovac, southern Serbia, private furniture and footwear atelier in the southern town of Vranje have been infected. 


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As EU leaders e-meet with their Western Balkans counterparts on Wednesday (6 May), the focus will be on a €3.3 billion EU aid package to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. What is seen as an attempt to counter …

Life after emergency

On 6 May, the Serbian parliament adopted a proposal to abolish the state of emergency introduced on 15 March. It also abolished the bill confirming the validity of the government’s decrees, along with the signed approval by the Serbian president, passed while the state of emergency was in effect.

“Serbia has a reason to be proud,” said Prime Minister Ana Brnabic during the debate in parliament, adding that many Serbian citizens should also be credited with the success in fighting the pandemic.

From 11 May, kindergartens opened their doors for children whose parents had to work and from 18 May, air traffic was given the ‘go-ahead’, as long as strict prevention measures and rules in other countries were respected. 

It was also decided that Serbia will open all its borders from 1 June, according to Belgrade daily Blic, which added that the decision was mostly motivated because of students from the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska and from Montenegro.

The day before (5 May), Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist and retired professor of the Belgrade School of Medicine, warned that a second wave could hit the country before summer if countermeasures were lifted too soon. On 13 April, epidemiologist Branislav Tiodorović said the life of Serbian citizens will return to ‘normal’ in June.

A few days later, on 12 May, the deputy director of the Institute of Public Health, Darija Kisic Tepavcevic said that easing lockdown measures could lead to a surge in cases. Yet, he also noted that the warm weather could lead to fewer transmissions.

However, on 25 May, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said it was too early for a “victory lap” but that the epidemic-related situation in Serbia was under control.

She told Prva TV that Serbia is slowly reopening its borders and that the decision to allow free entry to Serbia was “well-timed,” which is of great importance for the Serbian economy, adding that citizens should “adhere to measures such as wearing masks”.

Meanwhile, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport reopened for commercial flights on 18 May after just over two months with passengers expected to wear masks, thoroughly wash hands and advised to arrive at least three hours before departure.

Airport CEO Senka Jelenkovic told N1 that flights to Zurich, Frankfurt, Vienna, London and Ljubljana will resume at the end of May, while flights to Sarajevo, Podgorica, Tivat and Skopje are set for the beginning of June, adding that the flight timetable will depend on the rules and situation in the country of destination.

For Serbians coming back to the country, the Serbian government decided at its 14 May session that “Serbian citizens may enter the country and move without limitations with a negative PCR test for the coronavirus, not older than 72 hours. If a Serbian citizen enters Serbia without the test, they are obliged to spend 14 days in self-isolation.” 

It was added that, during self-isolation, citizens may perform the test in one of the reference laboratories in the country and, if the test is negative, end self-isolation.

The government also amended the decision on the limitation of prices of basic foods and protective equipment, which extends the limitation by another 30 days.

When it comes to the country’s parliamentary elections, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said on 4 May these would be held on 21 June. Elections were originally scheduled for 26 April, but were postponed because of the pandemic and the state of emergency.

The Serbian government decided on 20 April to ease part of the social distancing measures it imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic, allowing the elderly out of their homes three times a week and re-opening green markets.

City transportation in Novi Sad and Kragujevac resumed on 4 May without air conditioning, while Cafes and restaurants reopened on 4 May. Business that were allowed to reopen had to respect social distancing constraints, ensure premises were disinfected and impose the use of facemasks and gloves.     

Parliament, too, started to lift measures and held its first session since the state of emergency on 28 April, during which MPs actually confirmed the government decision to introduce the state of emergency, decrees co-signed by the president, which the Serbian government has issued in the meantime.

“Everyone will have to respect decisions made by the emergency task force, including MPs. All of them will pass through entrance screening, and receive masks and medical gloves. We have taken all measures necessary to protect journalists, cameramen, MPs and the parliament’s staff,” Gojkovic told journalists on 27 April in the parliament building.


For more on the country’s state of emergency, read on:


Serbia gradually opens its borders

On 21 May, the Serbian government said it will open borders and allow free entry for all, without the coronavirus test and special permission of the commission. Also, in an online meeting with leaders of Bulgaria, Greece and Romania on 19 May President Aleksandar Vučić said Belgrade agreed to open its borders on 1 June.

On 25 May, Hungary has opened its borders to Serbian citizens. The use of all nine border crossings to enter Hungary is now permitted without PCR tests and the mandatory 14-day quarantine, the RTS public service reported.

However, opening the borders with Montenegro wasn’t as easy.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told TV Pink on 25 June that Belgrade would not close its borders to Montenegro after Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said he’d open the country to countries that had met the epidemiological criteria defined by the Public Health Institute.

In other words, this would include countries reporting 25 coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Albania, and Greece.

While PM Brnabic noted that the country’s “real reason” for shutting out Serbians was not the pandemic, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic described Podgorica’s decision as “senseless”, adding that for the time being Belgrade will not submit a letter of protest and that Serbian borders will remain open to Montenegrin nationals.

In response, Montenegrin Ambassador to Serbia, Tarzan Milošević, said on 29 May that there had been no comment from epidemiologists in Serbia on Montenegro’s decision not to open its border with Serbia, explaining that the decision was not political and that it was brought in unison with the responsible health institutions.

“None of the epidemiologists in Serbia commented on the decision, only politicians did. That is reason enough for Montenegro to be right. The decision has nothing to do with politics,” he told the BETA  News Agency.

On Monday (25 May) Hungary has opened its borders to Serbian citizens. The use of all nine border crossings to enter Hungary is now permitted without PCR tests and the mandatory 14-day quarantine, the RTS public service reported.


More on opening the borders:


For more information on the elections, read here:


State of emergency, difficult times for the media 

On 15 March, the government adopted the state of emergency.

Also, Transparency Serbia reported that public officials had been more actively and noticeably involved in political campaigning during Serbia’s state of emergency. Transparency Serbia associate, Zlatko Minic, remarked that President Aleksandar Vucic continued his dramatic “addresses to the nation” during the state of emergency, while Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin was the most active in political marketing activities. 

The media sector, notably in its coverage of the crisis, has not had it easy.

From 11 April until 20 April, journalists were banned from attending news conferences about the coronavirus and had to send questions via email. Vojvodina’s health secretary Zoran Gojkovic said on 20 April that this was done with the safety of reporters in mind, not because of their questions. Before the ban was lifted, the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) had urged the government to reconsider it, arguing that such conferences allow journalists to ask questions to the experts directly and to get information otherwise impossible to obtain.

On 2 April, Nova.rs journalist and member of Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina steering committee, Ana Lalic, was released from custody after being detained overnight for an article on the current coronavirus crisis in the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina, in Novi Sad.


If the media sector in Serbia interests you, also have a look at:


EU and Western Balkan leaders reaffirm ties in veiled response to China, Russia

EU leaders confirmed their “unequivocal support for the European perspective” to their Western Balkans counterparts during a video-summit on Wednesday (6 May). However, the final declaration doesn’t make reference to a tangible time frame for the region’s accession to the bloc.

EU, Chinese or Russian aid? 

After the EU announced a support package of €410 million for the Balkans on 31 March, the Commission announced on 29 April that it would be pumping €3.3 billion to “address the immediate health and resulting humanitarian needs of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as help with the social and economic recovery.”

On 31 March, the European Commission’s neighbourhood and enlargement chief, Olivér Várhelyi, promised he had made €15 million available to Serbia for emergencies.

However, President Aleksandar Vučić has been critical of EU aid, which attracted criticism from the opposition.

In response to the criticism, the president said on 23 April that the European Commission did not offer Serbia financial aid but favourable loans intended for countries with balance of payments difficulties, which, according to him, Serbia does not have.

Earlier the same day, the Party of Freedom and Justice condemned Serbian authorities for declining European Commission aid worth hundreds of millions of euros and accused the government of borrowing from “sheikhs” because nobody oversees the spending of that money, which is not the case with EU funds.

Even before, Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić told Belgrade daily on 10 April that Serbia had welcomed the EU’s aid package but noted that Belgrade had been expecting a bigger aid package and also, quicker deployment. “Did we expect more and especially, did we expect the aid to arrive sooner? honestly speaking – yes,” he said, highlighting that, as a candidate country, it was expecting to be treated as an EU member state in tough times, warning that “EU states will be reconsidering the way in which the EU operates.” 

In an op-ed published on 7 May in US News and World Report, Vucic wrote that Serbia was grateful to all countries that helped with the pandemic, adding that the country had favoured a pro-Western foreign policy even though it had accepted aid from China and other countries. Yet, although he noted the EU’s abrupt implementation of “obstacles to the export of certain medical equipment to non-EU countries” in mid-March when China offered assistance, he wrote that the EU had been Serbia’s single biggest donor.

Serbia’s EU Integration Minister, Jadranka Joksimovic, however, said that EU support had been lasting and not momentary, particularly as it has been supporting Serbia’s healthcare system, police, public administration, local self-government, economy and infrastructure for years. Joksimovic told daily newspaper Politika on 10 May that with a change in “global relations”, “we have been hearing different interpretations of the role of great powers during the pandemic. And we will hear more.” 

Yet, China and Russia have also offered support to Serbia.

When it comes to China, Agricultural Minister Branislav Nedimovic signed a donation agreement on 8 April with representatives of the Chinese Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). The agreement foresees the construction of two state-of-the-art laboratories for COVID-19 testing, which could process a total of 3,000 tests per day, which, at the time, was three times more than the country’s capacities. 

Russia, on the other hand, supplied Serbia with military teams to disinfect 121,500 square meters in 34 facilities and 38,500 square meters of streets and squares, Major General Mikhail Chernyshov, heading the teams deployed to Serbia, said on Tuesday (7 April). Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin thanked Moscow for deploying experts to Serbia, stressing that the aid had arrived in the time it was most needed.

On 14 May, Vucic thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for being a “sincere friend” and confirming “the excellent strategic relations between Serbia and Russia” by caring for Serbia and sending medical aid, the Serbian president’s office confirmed. 

On 19 May, Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić highlighted the importance of regional cooperation during the pandemic, according to a release from his ministry.

In a video conference with his counterparts from the Western Balkans, as well as with those from Croatia and Slovenia, Dačić again expressed Serbia’s readiness to strengthen economic ties in the region and the common market.


For more on the region’s geopolitics and the coronavirus, check here:

About China:

The EU:


 

Western Balkans summit encourages 'European perspective' but omits enlargement

A virtual meeting of EU and Western Balkan leaders to discuss the future of the region on Wednesday (6 May) will produce a final declaration that is set to omit the word “enlargement” altogether, instead focusing on EU support during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of continued adherence to European value and reforms.

Job loss, economic packages and possible GDP growth 

Since the state of emergency was declared, about 200,000 people have lost their jobs, which corresponds to about 8% of the people employed in February and includes informal and self-employed workers, according to research published on 13 May and conducted by the SeConS Development Initiative Group, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Women were said to be the most at risk. Not only were 86% of workers “on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight” women but in 70% of households, more chores and the expanded care of family members had also become the responsibilities of women. Even before the crisis, women were over-represented in those areas.

However, to weather the COVID-19 storm, the government enacted a few measures.

On 13 April, a set of economic measures worth RSD608.3 billion (€5.1 billion), which corresponds to 11% of Serbia’s GDP for 2020, took effect.

The measures consisted of direct aid to employees, as well as tax cuts and payments of  €100 as direct aid to all adults, said Finance Minister Siniša Mali on 11 April. As of 7 May, about 1 million workers from 232,000 companies who had requested a state-financed minimum salary would receive such support, the minister said.

Mali also announced on 15 April the adoption of two decrees pertaining to the implementation of the loan guarantee scheme with commercial banks worth €2 billion and RSD2.6 billion in support of farmsteads, to be implemented as of 20 April.

Despite these proposed measures, Serbia expects to see GDP growth in 2020, the minister told a press conference on 6 May. “We have relaunched the national economy sooner than we expected, and we can hope for better results,” Mali said, adding that the public debt, too, was under control.


For more on the various economic measures, read here:

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