LONG READ: Serbia practices its four-pillar foreign policy in the coronavirus era

LONG READ: Serbia practices its four-pillar foreign policy in the coronavirus era
The huge new reception centre for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms set up at Belgrade Fairgrounds. / Serbian government
By Ivana Jovanovic in Stuttgart April 28, 2020

Since the coronavirus hit the globe, Serbia’s long-lasting goal to be an EU family member, the US’ friend, China’s brother and Russia’s kid all at the same time, or the so-called ‘four pillars foreign policy’, has been coming closer to its full realisation. 

Aid for the fight against COVID-19 is arriving from all four directions and has re-opened the debate on what is dearer to Serbs: “Russian poop or American cake”. 

The dispute was sparked in public back in 1985, when Emir Kusturica’s movie When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na sluzbenom putu), based on a screenplay by Abdualah Sidran, was released. The plot of the movie starts in 1948, an important year in Yugoslavia’s history that marked its assertion of independence from the USSR. Back then, the communist leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, claimed to have said his historical ‘njet’ to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which ended Yugoslavians’ obligatory payments to Moscow for their liberation from the Nazis in 1945 (for the three intervening years families throughout Yugoslavia were obligated to give part of their goods or income to Russia in order to pay for their liberation from the Nazis). 

After the Tito-Stalin split anyone in Yugoslavia who publicly expressed sympathy for Stalin ended up in a labour camp or political prison. One of those was a character in the movie, Vlado Petrovic, who yelled to Yugoslavia’s communist party police: “I like Russian poop better than American cake!” Later, the father of the movie’s main character met with a similar destiny. (A decade later, when Kusturica made his diary public, it became clear that the movie itself was a kind of pro-Russian propaganda.)

This anti-Stalin (not anti-Russian) mood in Yugoslavia lasted until his death in 1953. However, the dilemma remains open in Serbia more than 70 years later, even at a time when the entire world is temporarily closed. Also, new players have now joined the game: China and the EU. While the Serbian government tries to express equal gratitude to all sides, citizens and the media keep debating whose aid is bigger and better, sincere or fake, does it come as real help or as amends for injuries in the distant or recent past. 

Starting with China vs the EU (before cake or poop)

The coronavirus came to Serbia just a couple of weeks after the outbreak in Italy at the end of February, which was only around a month prior to planned regular parliamentary elections in Serbia. Bearing in mind Serbia’s fragile health system, the speed of the coronavirus’ spread generated panic among government and health experts. At the same time, the same drama was playing out everywhere else in Europe. Faced with the realistic fear that large numbers of infected people could lead to the collapse of the system, Serbia’s leadership had the huge challenge of finding ways to prepare for the worst-case scenario. 

As an emerging economy with limited capacities, Serbia clearly needed help. Usually, help would come from the EU but on March 15 when President Aleksandar Vucic declared a state of emergency due COVID-19, the EU decided to “protect the availability of supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), by requiring that exports of such equipment outside of the European Union are subject to an export authorisation by member states”. 

This made Vucic turn toward China and ask for help. At that time, the coronavirus epidemic in China was calming down and the country was looking for chances to shift the focus from reports that it hid facts about the virus and how dangerous it is. Vucic’s call was thus gladly accepted and — just like the virus itself — the first aid to Serbia originated from China. 

The first plane from China to Belgrade bearing aid arrived the very day after Vucic’s request, on March 16. Vucic, as well as members of Prime Minister Ana Brnabic’s cabinet, warmly welcomed it. 

The following day, during his meeting with Chinese ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo, Vucic explained his position and his urgency, telling her that Serbia was not yet in as bad a situation as some countries, but to avoid the worst-case scenario, Serbia needed Chinese help and support. 

“That is why I kindly ask you to send us everything you can … the money is not a problem. Send us masks, gloves… We need tens of millions of masks, gloves, respirators, literally everything, and most of all we need your know-how and people who would like to come to Belgrade and Serbia to help us out of this difficult crisis. We are not asking you for money; we are looking for something that is much more valuable than money. Thank you very much for everything and please convey my most sincere congratulations and most cordial greetings to the president of China, the great Xi Jinping,” he said, reads the statement posted on his official website. 

“We are awaiting here for our Chinese brothers. It is evident that without you, Europe can hardly defend itself. We do not hide it because we cannot, and we are not able to [defend ourselves] without China and our Chinese brothers,” Vucic added. 

This caused an angry reaction among the international community and media (among them Die Zeit, Foreign Policy, The Guardian and The Diplomat) as well as aggravating citizens in his own country. 

“He admires that autocratic leader of China and wants to be like he is! Poor is every one who waits for help from China! Do you remember an old saying of our grandparents: ‘poor is the one who is defended by Russia and fed by China’? That’s who we are with this guy!” said Slobodanka Kocic (71), one of several Serbians informally polled by bne IntelliNews

Her neighbour Dubravka Antic (53) said she thinks that any help from China sent to anyone, including Serbia, is hypocrisy, and blamed the Chinese for creating the virus in the first place. “Why are they helping us now after they gave us the virus first? Do they really have to eat bats? Do they really have to eat cats and dogs? They do apparently! Ok, then, they should have some hygiene and if they don’t have it, than they should keep their trash at home. Why do I have to deal with this threat now as I didn’t do anything bad? And to use Chinese products now? Now? Really? Their products are low quality in normal times! No thank you!” Antic tells bne IntelliNews

Antic’s sister Marina Stanojevic (44) has a different opinion and believes that Vucic wouldn’t beg China if anyone else had helped, especially the EU. “Did you miss when he said that the EU is not willing even to sell us medical things let alone donate them to us? What could he do but to find help on the other side. It is not time for pride when people are dying. Did you also forget that China bought the Zelezara [steel mill] in Smederevo when the Americans left? Vucic and the Chinese [President Xi] are absolutely correct when they call our two countries’ friendship a ‘steel’ one,” Stanojevic tells bne IntelliNews.  China's Hesteel Group acquired Serbia's only steel mill Zelezara Smederevo in July 2016 and saved thousands of jobs.

But, despite early Chinese (and Russian) happiness at Brussels’ apparent slowness to react, the EU is still helping Serbia in its fight against coronavirus. Even though meanwhile more Chinese planes have brought aid and Chinese health workers to Serbia, the cost of transport for the plane that landed on March 26 bringing medical equipment, clinical and transport ventilators, protective equipment and masks as well as tests for COVID-19, was borne by the EU, while the UNDP helped organise it. According to a Serbian government statement, part of the equipment was purchased by Serbia, and part was donated by China and Chinese private companies. 

Vucic’s absence when the aircraft landed provoked former Swedish PM and minister of foreign affairs and current co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations Carl Bildt to@carlbildt is due to lack of info and not bad intention. That aircraft was also carrying help from China+ medical supplies purchased by Serbia. Our EU partners paid for the transport and we greatly appreciate it!” she tweeted. 

According to an April 13 statement from Brnabic’s cabinet, she thanked the head of the EU delegation to Serbia, Ambassador Sem Fabrizi, for the swift assistance provided by the EU for immediate health needs, in particular for funding the flights transporting Serbian medical equipment imports, for additional medical material procured directly by the EU for Serbia, such as respirators, ventilators, masks and containers, and for the initial measures to support vulnerable communities including the elderly, single women and the Roma population.

During a phone call with Brnabic, Fabrizi explained that this initial assistance is part of the €15mn granted by the EU for immediate needs, and that additional accompanying measures have been put in place, particularly through the Joint Procurement Agreement and the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

The PM and Fabrizi also discussed the measures to be taken by Serbia to support the economy. Fabrizi pointed out that a €78mn package for Serbia had been announced by the European Commission, and emphasised the need to work together to support a swift economic recovery.

In the last two weeks, 21 triage containers have arrived in Belgrade as EU aid as well. They are part of a total package for which the EU has allocated €15mn for masks, thermometers, ventilators, fans, monitors and other medical equipment, the government said on April 21. The procurement and installation of a total of 100 containers is part of an EU assistance package of €4.9mn, for which the agreement was signed on April 3.

As usual, the EU will support Serbia’s economy, help that will be much needed after the coronavirus crisis. The EU is especially focused on SMEs, which are the hardest hit by the current situation. Most jobs in small businesses are currently frozen and for many of them the future is uncertain. Thus, the Serbia-EU relationship is stable and likely to stay stable. In a Ministry for European Integration poll conducted in December 2019, 54% of respondents said that they would vote ‘yes’ if a referendum with the question “Do you support our country to become an EU member?” would take place the following day. Only 24% would answer ‘no’. 

When it comes to relations with China, Serbia will remain thankful for all aid that is coming these days. It is unlikely that it will join lawsuits against China announced by the US and dozens more nations over the consequences of COVID-19. One reason is the ‘steel’ friendship, but another is China’s stance to not recognise Kosovo as an independent state and thus block Pristina’s path towards UN membership. China is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council. 

New testing labs from China and America (whose cake, whose poop now?)

The Serbian capital Belgrade and the third largest city in the country, Nis, got two new laboratories for testing for COVID-19, just one day apart. The Fire Eye laboratory in Belgrade came from China, while the one in Nis was funded by the US’ European Command (EUCOM), headquartered in Stuttgart. 

The Serbian government announced on April 20 that Fire Eye had arrived at the Clinical Centre of Serbia in Belgrade and has a capacity of 2,000 coronavirus tests per day. Brnabic said that 40 microbiologists will work in the laboratory 24 hours a day, and that the lab will help to launch antibody tests soon to determine the resistance of the population to the virus. According to the prime minister, after this donation, Serbia will have the best and most up-to-date laboratory in this part of Europe.

The second lab, which was also shipped few days ago from China to Serbia, will be installed in Nis and will be able to perform 1,000 tests a day.

But Nis already had capacity for testing for COVID-19: the real-time PCR aparat Quant Studio 5 machine, a US EUCOM donation delivered in November 2019 to the Nis Cardiac Surgery Clinic. The director of the clinic, Dr Dragan Milic, offered the machine earlier in March but the apparatus was not used because "other conditions, such as tests and auxiliary materials" were not met, deputy director of the Dr Milan Jovanovic Batut Institute of Public Health, Darija Kisic Tepavcevic, said at a press conference of the government crisis staff, Beta news agency reported on April 11.

Meanwhile, the company Aluramed donated the necessary pipets, the apparatus was moved to Nis’ Faculty of Medicine where the new lab was formed set up and the first test was conducted on April 18, Dr Milic announced in a Facebook post on April 21.

Milic said that the machine is able to analyse 96 samples at the same time, and the results are obtained in two hours, so that within 24 hours about 1,200 analyses can be done, Nis’ local portal Niske vesti reported.

One more donation from US EUCOM will be used for the fight against COVID-19: a digital X-ray machine, worth around €70,000. This was also a donation to the Nis Clinic for Cardiac Surgery but has been transferred to the Clinic for Infectious Diseases, Niske vesti reported on April 21.

“This device will allow the most accurate digital recording of all lung changes, which will be crucial for assessing the patient's condition and treatment success. Thank you to our American friends for the powerful donation that has found application not only in cardiovascular patients but also in patients with coronavirus!" Milic said on his Facebook page.

Time for a new chapter in relations with the US

Media reports about Serbia’s unequal gratitude for EU and Chinese aid or, to put it better, too much gratitude to China and not enough to the EU, inspired a reporter to question the US ambassador to Serbia Anthony Godfrey about the issue. However, Godfrey rejected talk of the ‘politicisation’ of the aid.

“I don’t want to see politicisation of gratitude, or for help to be used to play geopolitics. The EU and Norway helped Serbia, as did the UAE, Turkey and other countries. I don’t have time to participate in tabloid discussions. I’m focused on protecting American citizens in Serbia, on keeping my team healthy and doing everything that is in my power to help people in Serbia. Minister [of Foreign Affairs] Ivica Dacic was very thankful and he recognised American help. I want to thank Serbia too for its help. The Serbian government and AirSerbia helped to return 250 Americans home, we appreciate that help,” Godfrey said in an interview with Voice Of America on April 10. 

On the same day, the first part of the US’ aid to Serbia arrived in Belgrade, 6,000 tests for the fight against coronavirus. According to Godfrey, the US government will provide $274mn for 64 countries that are the worst hit by COVID-19 and part of that money will come to Serbia. He said that the Serbian government sent a list of the most needed items for the most jeopardised citizens and that the US will provide the help in cooperation with the WHO and UNICEF. 

Vucic shared the ambassador’s Instagram video about the arrival of the aid and posted this as his story on Instagram, adding: “Big thanks to Godfrey for personal engagement and to the US for help that is given to Serbia.”

Vucic also posted on his official Twitter profile saying: “Big Thanks! #SAD [“US” in Serbian] #Srbija”. Vucic’s tweet had 2,100 retweets and 2,600 likes. Thanks to this tweet the news was widely spread in local media.

Godfrey personally has been significantly contributing to the improvement of US-Serbia relations as well as to an overall change in Washington’s position toward Kosovo’s government. Coronavirus days give extra room to the ambassador, who communicates in fluent Serbian via his social network profiles to get closer to ordinary people and that way to emphasise the importance of cooperation in overcoming the crisis. Thus, he shared with his followers that his father died of COVID-19 and that brought a lot of comments of condolence. Meanwhile, his wife has been making face masks and donating them to hospitals. 

Following the current rule #stayathome, Godfrey participated in an online conference with the title: “The Serbian-American Relations in the Face of Challenges of  COVID-19”, on April 16, and again underlined that the US is not in a race with anyone when it comes to its aid to Serbia. 

“We provide this not just to be generous but also because we are pragmatic. As I mentioned, pandemics and public health threats don’t respect borders. I am pleased to see the assistance coming from Russia, China and the EU, which was extraordinarily generous, the people of Serbia should take it as a strong signal that the EU is interested in Serbia and the economies are connected,” he said.

However, his strongest message from the conference was that Serbian-American cooperation is stronger than ever, even though according to Dacic, Serbia and the US need to find practical fields of mutual cooperation.

“We hope that we will raise the dynamics of our political dialogue. The last visit of any American president was in June 1980, and it was Jimmy Carter. We think that it is about time to change that. I asked Ambassador Godfrey, how many times Presidents [Vladimir] Putin [of Russia] or Xi should come to Serbia to make the American president willing to come to Serbia? It is a very practical question. I am thankful for the 600 businesses in majority ownership of US companies, and the American investments are big, among them Microsoft, PMI, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo… However, our trade with the US should be bigger,” Dacic said during the same event. 

According to the data that Dacic presented the day before in his lecture  at the Serbian-American Academy for Leaders, trade between Serbia and the US has been increasing in recent years but the US is not yet among Serbia’s top 10 trading partners. The first two months of this year, before the pandemic was declared, began with solid trade amounting to $190.4mn (exports from Serbia amounted to $49.88mn and imports to $140.52mn). In the course of 2019, total commodity trade amounted to approximately $854mn.

Despite Dacic’s and Godfrey’s optimism and enthusiasm, anything coming from the US is still not valued properly in Serbia because of differences related to Kosovo and its independence. Serbian officials have been claiming that the current administration in Washington has been hearing the Serbian side and showing readiness for a constructive solution to the outstanding conflict that would be acceptable for Belgrade too. A lot of hopes have been given to US President Donald Trump special envoy for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue Richard Grenell. Grenell indeed took the concrete step of trying to force Kosovo to lift tariffs on goods from Serbia, and on March 13 the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced it would pause implementation of the threshold programme and development of the proposed compact programme in Kosovo until the tariff issue was resolved. 

But Kosovo is still refusing to comply with the US request, and the reason could be money coming from different sides (Turkey perhaps). Turkey unconditionally supports Kosovo’s independence (during his visit to Kosovo in 2013, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Kosovo is Turkey, Turkey is Kosovo!”). It is also possible that Pristina hopes the US administration will change after the autumn presidential election, and that its supporters from the Democratic Party will be in key positions. In that regard, Democratic representative Eliot Engel and senator Bob Menendez on April 13 called on the Trump Administration to continue diplomatic support to resolve the Kosovo-Serbia conflict in a way that’s fair to both countries and consistent with US law and longstanding policy. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the lawmakers cautioned that the administration’s heavy-handed approach to Kosovo unfairly penalises the country’s government (recently dismissed in a no-confidence vote but not yet replaced), and that Serbia’s derecognition campaign against Kosovo and close ties to the Kremlin have gone largely unchecked.

However, cutting funds for programs didn’t affect US’s emergency aid and thus it has been helping Kosovo in the fight against COVID-19 too. For some Serbs this is not a sincere attitude. (The politics of the US’ emergency aid is completely separated from any other kind of donations. The US even tried to give emergency aid for the fight against coronavirus to Iran, which was rejected by Tehran). Turkey for help in its fight against the virus, while on April 8 Turkey sent a plane with medical aid to Serbia.

The US’ longstanding support for Kosovo weighs heavily on the minds of many Serbians. “They said no more money to Kosovo and then they still give them money… what do they think? That we are sheep? Stupid? Naive? But, the problem is if we are too loud, they will bomb us again and what then? Thus, we should shut up and mind our own business. And Kosovo will again be ours! Turks took it from us and kept it for 500 years and we recovered it. We will again!” Aleksandar Cvetanovic (55) tells bne IntelliNews

His wife Nevenka agrees and says it doesn’t matter what America gives to Serbia, it doesn’t count as long as it doesn’t give Kosovo back. “It should be as it was — one country. They say that we will need to give part of our incomes again for 2mn Albanians who don’t want to work. So what? Is that the price for the land of your great-grandfathers? Maybe then America can help us to feed 2mn Albanians together but in Serbia!” she says to bne IntelliNews

Such opinions still largely influence the way local media report about donations from the US. The US’ aid announced by the ambassador had huge and positive coverage, while when it comes to the device donated by US EUCOM, the news was the device and not who donated it. That information was in the texts, but not in the headlines. 

The game is not over yet — Russia is in too (Russian poop still?)

When it comes to the military, Serbia remains the main playground in the region for Russian interests and so called ‘soft influence’. As expected, even though it was medical aid, Russian aid to Serbia for the fight against coronavirus came through the Ministry of Defence with Minister Alekdandar Vulin being its main (proud and loud) promoter. 

The 11th plane carrying medical and technical supplies and protective equipment, sent to Serbia by the Russian Federation, landed on April 4, the Ministry of Defence stated. The aid was a result of the agreement between the two countries' presidents and included 16 special motor vehicles intended for the disinfection of facilities and roads, as well as a large amount of medical and technical supplies and protective equipment needed to treat patients infected with coronavirus and to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The Ministry of Defence reported on April 3 that among the Russian personnel are one general, 42 officers, 42 non-commissioned officers and two members of the Russian Ministry of Health, led by the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence (ABHO) chief of the Western District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Major General Mikhail Chernishov.

Russian help was welcomed and Brnabic and Vucic gave thanks for it, saying: “Big thanks to President Putin and the brotherly Russian people!” 

Besides China and its attempts to hide information about the virus, the help from Russia in such situations is also a logical step, bearing in mind the existence of the Russian-Serbian humanitarian centre in Nis. According to the press release posted on the website of the centre, a group of Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological protection was relocated to Nis on April 11. The issues discussed at the meeting on the same day included disinfection of medical institutions, recommendations to local specialists on organising the reception and triage of incoming patients, adherence to the anti-epidemic regime in the centre’s departments and food preparation areas to prevent infection of medical workers from infected patients. Disinfection of urban institutions began on April 12 in Nis. In particular, these actions were carried out in the premises of the local fire and rescue department. The staff on duty did not escape this procedure.

“Yes, they disinfected everything. Who else gets disinfected in Europe? No one! Only Serbia and that’s only because we have our Russian mother and our Russian brothers!” Milos Blagojevic (35) from Nis tells bne IntelliNews

But, for other Nis citizens, the situation is not black or white. Some of them don’t feel comfortable with Russians around the city. KA (24), who preferred to stay anonymous, says there is no sense in spraying streets, and that the whole purpose is for Russia to collect information and blackmail Serbia again. 

“If we need to get help, I prefer to beg and get it from the West. The US does and gives a lot but no one dares to say that because of Kosovo! That’s not fair and not ok. With Russians we have never known what could be the next demand, request, order… Americans are, at least, sincere and direct. People here need to understand that,” she tells bne IntelliNews

Ana D (17) agrees with her: “The Russian model of everything is a model we don’t want to follow. Just look how they treat gay people. I don’t want their help.”

Indeed, it is an open question right now how the Kremlin will want to be ‘paid back’ by Belgrade for its help. Hopefully, the experience that the 80+ Russian military personnel gained during the pandemic in Serbia will be useful for fighting it in Russia now as the number of cases is increasing sharply there. 

Russia has been using the coronavirus crisis in Europe, where several countries now have more cases than China. With its negative narrative about lack of solidarity and mutual help (which are mainly not the truth as patients from Italy and France were being taken for treatment in Germany during peaks, for example), it aims to create additional upsets in the EU, after Brexit. In this light, additional pressure on Serbia to grant special status to Russian military personnel at the humanitarian centre in Nis wouldn’t be a surprising next step. That would be a huge obstacle on Serbia’s EU path — even bigger than Kosovo as it is an internal issue. But, Serbia’s foreign policy is actually based on its internal disputes, and consequently Russian poop will look nicer than American cake as long as Russia doesn’t recognise Kosovo. 

And maybe one day Trump will come to visit Belgrade and bring an American pie…