Great Serbian vaccinationism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People wait in line in front of the Belgrade Fair vaccination center in Belgrade, Serbia, 27 March 2021. Thousands of vaccine-seekers from neighboring countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro have crowded the Belgrade's main vaccination center after Serbian authorities offered free coronavirus jabs for foreigners. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

The decision of the Serbian authorities to open the door to their neighbours for vaccination has nothing to do with reviving warm memories of the former Yugoslavia, writes Orhan Dragaš.

Dr Orhan Dragaš, International Security Institute of Belgrade, is author of the book “Two Faces of Globalization- truth and deceptions”.

People in the Balkans over 40 remember that it was common to travel from Sarajevo or Skopje to Belgrade for Red Star’s European matches or from Belgrade to Zagreb for the Rolling Stones concert in 1976. The war and the disintegration of the former state during the 1990s made whole generations grow up believing that 300 or 400 kilometres to the neighbouring capital is an unattainable distance, even when it comes to top entertainment.

Scenes of the neighbour’s “invasion” from 30-40 years ago were repeated in Belgrade last weekend, although the occasion was different. About 9,000 people from the region were vaccinated in just two days in Belgrade, as Serbian authorities provided a free and easy registration procedure at their health facilities, where vaccination has been carried out since December.

This invasion of people from the region for the vaccine in Belgrade was not preceded by any promotional campaign. As one Sarajevo resident said, it was enough for him to learn from a friend from Belgrade about the possibility of vaccinating foreign citizens and to get on the road immediately, and in the meantime, as he says, “the whole of Sarajevo” learned about this action. It seems that most citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro came to Belgrade for AstraZeneca, and according to media reports and expressions of gratitude on social media, there were many vaccinated people from Croatia and Slovenia. Let’s not forget the nice crew of an Albanian airline, which used the break between the two flights to swing for the first shot of AstraZeneca.

The decision of the Serbian authorities to open the door to their neighbours for vaccination has nothing to do with reviving warm memories of the former Yugoslavia. Things are much more pragmatic. Everyone who arrived in Belgrade from the region came only to protect themselves with the vaccine from COVID-19 virus. Their motives are quite clear and understandable, but what about Serbia’s motives?

For months now, Serbia has been stable, close to the top in Europe and the world in terms of the number of vaccinated citizens in proportion to its population. At the end of March, the figures say that at least one quarter of the population received a dose, and about 15% of the citizens were revaccinated. Such figures allow Serbia the “luxury” of distributing certain amounts of the vaccine to its closest neighbours, whose statistics were catastrophically bad until just a few weeks ago. The Serbian president did not pass without criticism in his country when he handed over 8,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to the Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, in mid-February. Despite that, President Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić repeated a similar action in Podgorica, then in Sarajevo, only to continue, in a slightly different way, by opening vaccination points in Belgrade for everyone from the region.

Analyzing Serbia’s motives for doing this, in European circles dealing with the Balkans, takes up incomparably more space than discussing the real effects of this action, measured by the number of vaccinated people in countries where it was zero until recently. In that endless dissection of Serbian motives, one inevitably goes into exaggerations, even into pure mistakes (intentional or not). The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is wrong, for example, when it states that “the donation of Serbian President Vučić to Northern Macedonia was more symbolic than substantive”. It was more than a substantive, because 8,000 donated doses from Serbia were enough to vaccinate all Macedonian doctors in primary health care and almost half of all nurses and technicians! At the same time, the help arrived at the right time, because until that moment, no citizen was vaccinated in Northern Macedonia, not even a health worker. The same kind of substantive support came to Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, also at a time when they did not have a single dose.

The motives of Serbia and its President Vučić to lead this regional campaign are extremely pragmatic and no hidden agenda should be sought here. It is true that Serbia and Vučić are gaining a positive image throughout the Balkans with these moves, in an area that has failed to build tolerance and mutual empathy for decades. But aren’t all other leaders in the world who have enough vaccines in their hands doing the same thing, and even the EU, which does not have a good internal supply? What more can the recent decision of European leaders on the mechanism for approving the export of vaccines from the EU be than the effort to preserve international influence? Nothing special or hidden, vaccines have become an instrument of cross-border influence and it is a generally accepted and legitimate practice around the world.

Furthermore, the regional vaccine-diplomacy conducted by Serbia has the expected positive effect to increase the health performance of its immediate environment, because these are the spaces and people with whom Serbia has the busiest trade, personal communication, labour migration, students and tourists. It is clear that it will not mean much to Serbia, being in the European and world top of vaccinated nations, if its closest environment is at the very bottom.

In essence, Serbia in the Balkans is doing nothing different from the way the EU regulates its internal relations and regimes in the fight against the pandemic. In that, it is guided exclusively by its own interests, and in this case, it coincides with the interests of its neighbours.

Just as the European Union will not change its internal structure after the pandemic, so the current political architecture will not be disrupted in the Balkans either. There is no talk of a new Yugoslavia, which is often and superficially discussed, and there will be no “Great Serbia”. The best proof of that is the ridicule of the story about “Great Serbian nationalism” even while the regional vaccine weekend in Belgrade lasted, because witty and grateful guests, upon their return from Belgrade, quickly coined the term “Great Serbian vaccinationism”.

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