BALKAN BLOG: The positive side-effects of Serbia’s regional vaccination campaign

BALKAN BLOG: The positive side-effects of Serbia’s regional vaccination campaign
A sports hall being used as a vaccination centre in Serbia, which has launched one of the fastest vaccination programmes in Europe.
By bne IntelliNews reporters in Serbia and the Western Balkans May 3, 2021

Serbia’s success in first securing vaccines for its own population and then sharing them with its neighbours — a combination of efficiency and generosity rare in international politics — have burnished its international reputation and done more than two decades of diplomacy to achieve its foreign policy goals. 

The Western Balkan country was among the first to start large-scale inoculation of its population and is still among the fastest in the world. In Europe, only the UK, Malta and recently Hungary are ahead in terms of the share of the population vaccinated to date. 

Not only that but for almost a month, Serbia has been sharing vaccines (for free) with its neighbours that, like most of Europe, are struggling to procure jabs. According to the latest statement from President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia has sent about 120,000 doses of vaccines to the region and vaccinated about 65,000 citizens of neighbouring countries in various cities within the country. 

This unique initiative has put the “vaccine nationalists” in the EU, UK and elsewhere to shame, and Serbia is now preparing to start production of first Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and possibly also the Chinese vaccine to supply to its own citizens and across the Western Balkans, reinforcing its position as the vaccine hub for the EU-aspiring region. 

“We believe that those vaccines are important for our neighbours as much as they are important for us. If they are in a hard situation, everything we do will be pointless,” Vucic said after his meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, in Belgrade, regional broadcaster N1 reported on April 24.

A game changer

The Serbian leadership says procurement of COVID-19 vaccines wasn’t a matter of geopolitics but of health and lives. However, what Belgrade has achieved through its vaccine diplomacy dovetails neatly with its international aspirations. 

Landlocked on a crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe, just behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, and burdened with its inglorious recent past (despite the heroic one from WWII and WWI), Serbia has been working tirelessly to establish itself as a top regional tourist and investment destination. Good food, a remarkable hospitality, rich history and affordable prices haven’t always been enough for positive reports in international media, where Serbia is still often seen through the lens of the wars of the 1990s. But, the country’s effort to fight the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could be a game changer.

Not only that but, the ‘vaccine menu’ coincides with the country’s so called ‘four pillar foreign policy” where it aims for good relations with the US, the EU/Western Europe, Russia and China. Four vaccines are available in the country: Pfizer-BioNTech (American-German), Astra Zeneca (UK-European), SputnikV (Russian) and Sinopharm (Chinese). The country managed to secure them through bilateral deals with all four sides. One more from the US is coming in October as Vucic announced Moderna as yet another option. 

“We have open gates, we have open doors on all sides. We made bilateral agreements first with Pfizer, then with Sinopharm, then with Astra Zeneca, then with Sputnik. It wasn’t very difficult for us because of our geopolitical position but we didn’t care about [geopolitics], we cared only about people’s lives and that was the simplest and the easiest solution,” Vucic said in an interview with CNN.

Brnabic officially started the process of vaccination in Serbia on December 24, 2020, when she got her first Pfizer shot, becoming the first European leader immunised with the vaccine. Again, in accordance with the country’s four pillar diplomacy, other top politicians received different jabs — Vucic got the Chinese one and parliament speaker (and Russophile) Ivica Dacic Sputnik V.

What Serbia did right 

Serbia’s ability to get Pfizer vaccines even though it is still not a EU member opened a debate internationally. It is far ahead of the bigger, richer EU members, whose struggle to obtain vaccines has prompted soul searching and acrimony within the bloc. 

That raised the question of how Belgrade got it right while Brussels (or Berlin, or Paris…) got it wrong. Brnabic has been explaining that the main reason is simply the fact that Serbia was among the first five countries in the world that signed a contract with Pfizer on vaccine procurement.

“They [Pfizer] are a very worthy partner, and they continuously deliver vaccines, every Monday, now Tuesday. They have adhered to all contract obligations. We were one of very first countries that believed in this company’s vaccine, we signed a contract with them and that’s why we got it second in Europe, after Great Britain. We in Serbia initiated vaccination with their jab,” Brnabic said when asked by a journalist from German RTL why Serbia got the Pfizer vaccine before Germany.

By contrast, Germany has been slow to vaccinate against COVID-19 and its hard lockdown has been in place for almost six months. Hope is now being pinned on the German vaccine CureVac, which is expected to be put into use in June after it gets approval from the EU in the second quarter of the year, CureVac’s CEO Franz-Werner Haas told CNBC on April 8. 

When it comes to vaccination, Belgrade being ahead of Berlin is ironic bearing in mind that Serbia is one of the main exporters of workers to Germany (about 400,000 Serbs live there). However, right now, many Germans have to wait (or find a way to jump the queue) to get a COVID-19 shot while all any Serb needs to do is to sign up online or just show up at a vaccination site.

According to Vucic and Brnabic, the rollout has also been helped by digitalisation and the e-government platform that offers easy and quick registration (including audio guidance).

“The way in which Serbia responded to challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is the role model for the entire world,” Unicef regional director for Europe and Central Asia Afshan Khan, said during her visit to Belgrade on April 23, reads a government statement.

Meanwhile, Brnabic expressed gratitude to Khan for the support Unicef is giving Serbia through the COVAX mechanism. "I think Serbia was one of the few countries that looked on vaccine purchase and distribution as a healthcare issue and not a political issue. That’s why we are so successful," the prime minister said in an interview with Euronews, one of her first interviews on this topic conducted in February. 

Faster EU integration

The sharing of vaccines with its neighbours comes at a moment when Serbia is stagnating on its EU path, but it could help it move on. 

During his visit to Belgrade, Maas praised what Serbia is doing. “Serbia is very successful in vaccination and that has been closely followed in the EU. The better we are at vaccination, the faster the return to normal life will be. At the beginning, we were admiring your success in vaccination from a distance but now the situation is Germany is a little better too,” Maas told Vucic in Belgrade.

Positive reactions from Germany usually mean more investments from Germany. To date, as Maas said, German companies have invested more than €2.5bn in Serbia, creating more than 70,000 jobs in the process.

“Germany therefore stands shoulder to shoulder with Serbia as it moves towards the European Union. As a reliable partner – for we believe that the countries of the Western Balkans belong in the European Union. But also a demanding partner – for steps towards integration require ambitious reforms and reconciliation in the region. And I’m pleased that we had such constructive talks on this both yesterday and today. We’ll therefore continue to work to ensure that the enlargement process gains new momentum in the near future,” Maas said in a speech at the inauguration of a new chancery building at the German embassy in Belgrade on April 23.

10 minutes of glory on CNN

Serbia’s move to share vaccines with its neighbours brought numerous positive reactions in international media as well as additional respect from political elites and ordinary citizens throughout the region and continent. 

And, finally, Serbia (and Vucic personally) got a positive report on CNN, and its vaccine sharing was also a big story for media outlets in countries throughout the EU as well as for the BBC and Financial Times

Because of the civil war in Yugoslavia and politics of official Belgrade (even when they are not widely supported by ordinary citizens), Serbia is often still the subject of negative reports in major international media. The 10-minute broadcast on CNN with the headline “This man's country offers free vaccines to foreigners” was unprecedented. 

Vucic also got a chance to send several important messages. “For us it wasn’t a matter of geopolitics, it was a matter of saving people’s lives. We prepared ourselves, I think, in a very best way. That means, number one, we invested hugely in digitalisation of Serbia … Number two, speaking about procurement, which was the most important in this stage, we tried and we got vaccines from all different parts of the world,” Vucic told CNN.

“First of all I think the most important issue is whether we are able to save people’s lives or not. And, if you can [vaccinate] someone in Sarajevo or Podgorica or Skopje, that’s pretty much the same as we are doing the with people [here] … although we are only responsible for people in Kragujevac, Nis, Novi Sad [and] Belgrade, this is our region, we live close to each other,” the president of Serbia concluded in his interview with CNN. 

As expected, the video went viral and there are hopes it will encourage US investors to make positive decisions with regard to Serbia. The vaccination campaign goes in line with this because in today’s world, vaccinated workers mean a workforce. Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS) announced on April 22 that it has already supported about 600 members in immunisation of their 20,000 employees.

Overall, the positive coverage in international media is a huge positive side-effect to all the effort Vucic and his team put into the vaccination process and the fight against COVID-19. Ironically, had Vucic decided to spend the money on promoting the country, it would have cost significantly more money than Serbia has spent on vaccines and wouldn’t have saved lives.

Building trust not a dominant position 

While the positive side prevailed (for the first time ever in some international media), some didn’t stint on criticism, again because of the burden from the past. Vucic took on the critics who claimed that behind the gesture of sharing vaccines was his wish to be dominant in the region.

“You have to be sharply criticised whatever you do. The only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing,” he said during an online meeting with representatives of Atlantic Council and American Chamber of Commerce in Serbia on April 22. 

Sharing vaccines in the corona time brings Serbia and other countries of the so called “Mini Schengen” initiative closer together. Citizens of its other two members, North Macedonia and Albania, can travel to and from Serbia without a PCR test, as announced by Brnabic. People from the two countries were among the most numerous that come to Serbia to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The possibility to travel freely and come to get a jab is helping to building trust among nations that are part of this new idea of an economic free zone. The same travel regime applies for citizens of Hungary and Bulgaria.

Vaccination day trippers

The largest number of visits by people from neighbouring countries to Serbia was recorded in March when the government announced free Astra Zeneca shots for everyone who wanted them. Brnabic said that Serbia was supposed to dispose of between 20,200 and 25,000 doses of Astra Zeneca when they expired at the beginning of April. Rather than wasting the shots, the government instead invited people from the region to use them. Everybody who came to Serbia for their first jab will be invited for their second when it is needed.

The border police of Bosnia & Herzegovina recorded 73% more border crossings to Serbia on March 27, 28, and 29 compared to week before, spokesperson of the police agency Franka Vican told Radio Free Europe. She said that the enormous increase was recorded because Bosnian citizens were going to Belgrade and Novi Sad for vaccination.  

Among those was the Markovic family from a village near Sarajevo. Nenad Markovic (56) said that they had no doubts as to whether they should go once they heard that the option existed. 

“At that point, everything Bosnia had was what Vucic donated to the Federation. It wasn’t a matter of politics as some tried to frame it. For us it was matter of our health, the health of our parents who are too old to go but at risk every time they have contact with us. I really do not care if the vaccine is American, Russian or whatever! The doctors said they are all good and thank you Serbia for sharing whatever you have with your neighbours,” he told bne IntelliNews. He also joked that taking a day trip to Belgrade in corona time is an extra reason to go.  

“We cannot wait for all this to be over so we can travel again. We love to go to Serbia to shop, hang out in restaurants, enjoy being beside the rivers in Belgrade… Right now, we are even excited to get a call to go to get our second shots!”

Serbia donated 5,000 Astra Zeneca vaccines to the Bosnian Federation on March 2. In early April, a new contingent of 10,000 Astra Zeneca jabs also arrived from Belgrade in Canton Sarajevo with the Serbian government planning to allocate 10,000 more vaccines, reads its April 9 statement. Meanwhile, Vucic delivered a donation to Republika Srpska, consisting of 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on April 15, the government said.

During the delivery of the first jabs to Bosnia in March, Vucic delivered a key message: “Today, when we all expected help from those who are much more powerful, we rely on each other. We in Serbia cannot be satisfied if the people in Sarajevo, Bijeljina, Banja Luka are not happy, we understand that well,” reads the government’s statement

The initiative to bring citizens of neighbouring countries to Serbia for such a reason was very welcome among some local citizens. One of them is Z.I. (she insisted on being identified only by her initials because she wants to protect her family members from eventual misunderstandings or even verbal attacks by people who do not share her opinion that vaccination could help end the pandemic). Z.I. was born in Belgrade about 80 years ago. For her, the crowds around the vaccination facilities in the Belgrade Fair complex are the most beautiful picture that her country could send to the world.

“This vaccination is not only a good thing for physical health, it is good for mental health — it brings us together! Welcoming people from all over the region to Belgrade to get a jab, makes me very proud of my hometown and home country and reminds me of the good old days when Belgrade was one of the brightest cities of Europe,” she told bne IntelliNews

Z.I. added that her granddaughter who currently lives in the UK accompanied her and to the vaccination centre and also got her vaccine in Belgrade. 

“She got the Oxford vaccine. She is eligible because she is young. As a linguist, I wanted that one too but I’m too old for it,” she added. 

Z.I. survived the Nazi bombing and occupation of Belgrade (1941-1945), the smallpox epidemic in Yugoslavia in 1972, the breakup of Yugoslavia, international sanctions and civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Nato bombing in 1999, and, as she says: “Now, one more disaster — COVID-19! At least, all I need to do now is to roll up my sleeves one more time for my second dose.”

Besides people from Bosnia, citizens of North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania and even some further flung countries have been coming to cities in Serbia to get their COVID-19 vaccines. Serbs from Kosovo — and reportedly some Albanians too — are coming to get vaccines in towns in south Serbia. 

Companies from the region have organised transportation for their workers since the initial call was made by the Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS) that invited companies from the region to bring their workers to get shots. PKS president Marko Cadez said on that occasion that 7,500 of businesspeople from the region were immunised in Serbia. Among them was a whole crew from Albanian air company Albawings.

According to Brnabic, over the last weekend of March, about 22,000 foreigners were vaccinated in the country. 

However, her cabinet has now decided to prioritise the local population. The main obstacle to the vaccination campaign is the anti-vaccine groups. As the prime minister and the president have warned, despite the availability of vaccines and easy system to sign up, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country is still high because the voices of those who are sceptical about vaccines are very loud. On top of this, Vucic added that another problem is that a large number of people feel they don’t need to be in a rush as they can get a vaccine any time, N1 reported on April 23.

The other reason is that life in Serbia is pretty much normal as almost everything is open. The reason for this decision is the survival of the economy but also to keep people calm because every kind of lockdown in Serbia causes large protests. The holiday season as well as the wish to travel and eventually go abroad for seasonal work, together with the high prices of PCR tests (which are an alternative to vaccine or quarantine) are expected to accelerate the vaccination process of the domestic population.

According to the Serbian minister of health, over 3mn vaccines have been administrated in Serbia so far and 1.26mn citizens received two doses, he told national public broadcaster Radio Televizija Srbija (RTS) on April 22. In order to win its battle with the coronavirus, Serbia needs to vaccinate just over 3mn citizens. 

Despite this, some people from neighbouring countries still plan on vaccination in Serbia. Nenad Stojanovski, from the capital city of North Macedonia, Skopje, is among them. “We wanted to wait a little bit and observe the situation and now we are sure we want to go to Serbia because that’s the only place for us to get the one we want,” he told bne IntelliNews

Regional media report that a few thousand people from North Macedonia have received a COVID-19 jab in Serbia so far. In order to thank Serbia for this generosity, North Macedonia’s PM Zoran Zaev plans to allow all cars with Serbian plates to travel through his country without paying toll fees. He said in an interview with Skopje’s Channel 5 in April that Serbia’s donation of vaccines is worth about €700,000 and “even though what Serbia did doesn’t have a price” he still plans to respond “with friendship to friendship”. 

At the beginning of April, Serbia donated 20,000 doses of SputnikV to North Macedonia. This was the second donation to the country's southern neighbour after a month earlier, Belgrade gave 8,000 doses of Pfizer to Skopje, which were first COVID-19 vaccines the country received. 

A popular old saying in the Western Balkan is: “thank you for the song that kept us going”. It is most applicable for North Macedonia where, everybody in the region believes, live the most talented musicians. 

Today, many of the songs about corona that have become popular across the region come from North Macedonia. One, created by actor Dragan Spasov Dac and composer Aleksandar Mitevski, is called “The Vaccine”, and takes on the topic of people going to Serbia to get vaccinated. It begins: “One Angelina would like so much to eradicate a plague from China, she is signing up for a vaccine in Serbia but she doesn’t know I can be her vaccine!” It has already over 108,000 views on YouTube and 2,600 on the duo’s Facebook page.

But an earlier song from the two, who have been sharing humour about COVID-19 on Facebook since the pandemic descended on Europe last year, expresses people’s hopes for a COVID-free future. To the tune of Italian anti-fascist anthemBella Ciao”, people from the region hope to be singing “Corona Ciao” before too long.