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Vaccine diplomacy in South Eastern Europe: How’s the race going on?

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The media dedicate increasing attention to the issue of vaccine distribution and how it affects the post-pandemic recovery. Some commentators and outlets have been focusing especially on the inequalities in the allocations of doses amongst different countries. As a matter of fact, a small number of highly developed countries have already booked an excessive number of doses. The UK, Israel and the US are likely to get enough shots to immunise their entire populaces more than once.

Meanwhile, most of the developing world is lagging behind. Lacking the financial resources and the political might to extoll bounding commitments from vaccine producers, they are losing the race. This is especially the case in Africa and Latin America, but Europe’s periphery is not in a much better position. However, few countries some South-Eastern Europe have managed to hit the headlines all around the globe for their amazing performances. One of them is Hungary, probably the most riotous EU member State. The other is Serbia, whose relations with the EU, Russia and China are equivocal at best.

Thus, it is worth having a look at the how vaccination programmes are progressing in the region. After all, the key to Budapest’s and Belgrade’s successes is no mystery: diplomacy.

A peak at the wider region: The EU’s vaccine diplomacy has failed

South Eastern Europe is a rather variegated area. It comprises 14 countries (Figure 1), half of which are members of the EU: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia. Other two, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, are on the cusp of entering the Union. Whereas the remaining five have little to no concrete membership prospect: Bosnia, the territory of Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia. In an effort to prove itself indispensable, the EU has committed to send out vaccine to some non-members. Through Sofia, it promised Skopje to deliver thousands of AstraZeneca shots, and Bucharest shipped several Pfizer batches to Chisinau. Whereas the Commission itself pledged even more doses of vaccines for both Sarajevo and Pristina.According to these plans, the EU should be ahead of its neighbours in rolling out the vaccine across the board. At the same time, friendly relations should allow a few non-members to reap the benefits and boost their performances. However, reality tells a rather different story.

Looking at the data on total vaccinations in the 14 South-Eastern European countries one can identify four groups. Having vaccinated more than 30% of their populations, Hungary and Serbia are the undisputed leaders. Following, a quite compact group comprising the other six EU member States posits between 15% and 25%. Despite their different sizes and approaches, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Romania, and Slovenia have reaped sensible benefits from EU membership. Still, they are far behind the two leaders. Third, between 5% and 10% there are only Albania(10.57%) and Montenegro (7.85%). Two quite diverse countries, both seem to have enjoyed some help from the EU — but not nearly enough. Finally, way below the 5%-threshold stand Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and MoldovaThese countries were relying almost entirely on the EU’s help to acquire enough shots, but Brussels let them down.

These data make up for a rather self-evident indictment of the EU’s vaccine diplomacy. The EU missed on the occasion to project influence in its neighbourhood while reinforcing its image as a “civilian power”.But, often diplomacy in this part of Europe is a zero-sum game where political sway is the ultimate prize. For every metaphorical centimetre an external actor loses, another foreign power seems to take hold. The EU’s missed chance has become Russia’s great opportunity to score a few points it what once was an area of strategic importance. Yet, taking a better look, one realises that this time around the focus should not be on third parties. In an increasingly multipolar, and even multiplex world, middle-sized states are experimenting with new ways to matter.

Hungary’s deals with two devils

Hungary has recently registered a substantial surge in the number of contagions and in a hospital for treatments. The government has also taken extremely strict measures to curb the spread of the various in early March. But the strongest endeavour to stop the various came on the vaccination side of the equation.

As a matter of fact, Hungary has approved more vaccines and administered more shots than any other European country. Having jabbed already over 2,000,000 doses, Hungary is driving the European vaccine race — by far. The latest data from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), Pfizer produced about half of these vaccines. Of the remaining million, about 430,000 vials brought AstraZeneca’s or Moderna’s labels. This means that other sources accounted for about 570,000 doses, or over 25% of the total.

Hungary has taken a few risky bets in its paths toward group immunity. First, it ordered and injected about a quarter of a million of Russia’s Sputnik V in early February 2021. At the time, there were still many doubts on Sputnik V’s viability, efficacy and security. This came already in defiance of EU’s pressures for a centralised approval of new products. More recently, Hungary went on with the purchaseand speedy approvalof several Chinese vaccines. Apparently, Budapest has been paying $36 per shot to the Beijing — double the price of a Sputnik V dose.

Yet, for high the price may have been the bet seems to be paying back. So much, that Hungary has actually acquired newfound output-legitimacy for its unpredictable foreign policies.

Serbia’s show off — Playing both sides against the middle

At the beginning of the pandemic, Serbia was already better-positioned to benefit from Russia’s and China’s proactive vaccine diplomacies. Belgrade carries no legal responsibility vis-à-vis Brussels since it is not an EU member State. Moreover, it is less dependent on Germany and other EU countries when it comes to debt financing and trade (Figure 3). True, backtracking on the promise of future membership would have been a strong weapon in the EU’s arsenal. But this is not the case anymore. Serbia has no concrete path towards entering the EU and a long history of flirtations with Russia and China. Some have argued thatSerbia outpaced the EU thanks to China’s and Russia’s vaccines. Yet, the data are not clear and the process not transparent enough. If anything, it seems that the proportions of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ vaccines should not be too different from Hungary’s.

Still, one thing is certain. Serbia has turned its extraordinary capability to buy vaccines from both the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ into a diplomatic stunt. In fact, the EU has miserably failed to provide Belgrade’s neighbours with shots. Meanwhile, Serbia has opened its borders to foreigners willing to get a jab. Moreover, Belgrade has made up for Sofia’s failure to send more vaccinesto Skopje — putting the EU in a hard spot.

Conclusion: Hands free

South-Eastern Europe’s vaccine diplomacy, the EU’ failure and regional powers’ successes speak volume about how the world is changing. As the US seem to inexorably withdraw from its past commitments, the EU is failing to come of age. Meanwhile, Russia is reasserting itself and has been punching above its weight in Europe and beyondfor a while now. Finally, its recovery from the pandemic-induced crisis signals that China has no intention to stop short of overtaking the US.

Against this fluid background, South-Eastern Europe is gaining renewed centrality. Hungary and Serbia are just two examples of what this implies — albeit the most successful ones. Nevertheless, their prowess it becoming an example for other small countriesto follow. Thus, it is opportune to keep following the events closely as new geopolitical alignments seem to emerge.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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How a Democracy Can Be Undermined: Some Lessons

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Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them.  It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone. 

In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections.  Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990. 

In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power.  However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws. 

Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget.  Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business.  Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance. 

With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism.  In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree. 

All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.   

If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power.  And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.

Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free.  Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.  

In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall.  They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law.  The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case. 

Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect.  There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws. 

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Croatia Between Victory And Defeat

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The first half of May in Croatia is marked by the anniversaries of two events from the end of the Second World War. With one democratic Croatia, which, if we believe its Constitution, is built on the foundations of anti-fascism (and opposite the so called Independent State of Croatia, established by the Ustasha movement, under the wings of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) should be proud of, the other would be politically opportune not to mention at all, or keep  within the limits of individual commemorations. We are speaking, of course, of Victory Day and the date of the surrender of the remnants of the Ustasha and Home Guard forces, united in the Croatian Defense Forces, on the Bleiburg field, ie the liquidation of still uncertain number od those made prisoners there.

The opposite is happening, however. Instead of being proud of the V Day, the official Croatian tries to push it into oblivion, and because it does (still) cannot, makes only certain protocol gestures. And the fact that during WW2 a Croatia existed which was on the side of Nazi-fascism existed and kept fighting to the last day, and even after that, that there was a Croatia which systematically committed war crimes against Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croats – political opponents, thus tarnishing the Croatian name, is persistently being pushed in the foreground. With a barely concealed positive context.

This is obvious not only from this year, but exactly in this, 2021. it becomes, perhaps, most clear than ever. And this presents the Republic of Croatia as a state that is dangerously turning into the waters of neo-fascism, that is, Ustashaism. Of high representatives of state, Victory Day was personally marked only  by the head of State, who laid flowers at the tomb of national heroes, ie. Partisan fighters (representatives of high positioned politicians are not worth mentioning, they were really there just to satisfy form). And yes, one, the only (!) Academy was organized to mark that day by the Alliance of Anti-Fascist fighters and Anti-Fascists (and not the State!). It commemorated the Victory Day, the (almost forgotten) Day of the Liberation of Zagreb, and Europe Day, which is marked on May 9th in order to convey in this way the message that post-wEurope, and that should mean today’s Europe too, is built on the foundations of the anti-fascist struggle and on the values of anti-fascism. The current President was not present at that academy. There were two former presidents of the Republic and again – several representatives. The information about this celebration somehow found its way into the media, but that was all.

Public television marked this significant day by broadcasting one American and one Russian-Ukrainian film with a theme from the time of the Second World War. And with an unspoken message: that war in Croatia did not rage, and if by some chance it did – there are no films about it (what about some of world famous movies showing the antifascist struggle in Yugoslavia, such as Neretva or Walter defends Sarajevo?)

The other event, the surrender at Bleiburg and everything that happened after that, has been talked about for days. The state (Parliament) and the Church are maximally engaged in the organization of the commemoration of something that is as cynically as hypocritically called the memorial day for “Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence”. Mass celebrations and gatherings will be held in three (!) places in Croatia, and buses (even from Germany) are being organized to bring “pilgrims” to them. And what about pandemic? Everything will be, they say, in line with epidemiological measures and restrictions. They say so and they knowingly and recklessly lie, believing that the public is so stupid, or resigned, that something like this can be served to them with impunity, even on the eve of important local elections.

Since 1990, when the surrender at Bleiburg was publicly marked for the first time in Croatia (and when on that occasion the re-named Croatian Radio “shone” with a report, featuring Dinko Šakić, former commander of Jasenovac, one of about 60 concentration camps in the Ustasha state, who categorically stated that – if he lived again – he would do everything the way he did, this commemoration turned not into commemoration of those executed without trials after the surrender, but into regret over the defeat of the Ustasha para-state which, in accordance with Tudjman’s statement at the First HDZ congress, held in Yugoslav times, was “the realization of the centuries-old aspirations of the Croatian people too ”.

Austria has for years tolerated gathering on Bleiburg field, speeches that were often politically colored, highlighting of the Ustasha symbols and flags (the first white field in the Croatian coat of arms), but then – largely under pressure from Europe – denied its hospitality to the, as it was called by a reputable European medium, the largest gathering of radical right-wingers and neo-fascists on the Old Continent. Official Croatia, but also the “Church of the Croats” could not come to terms with that, so last year the “Bleiburg Mass” was held in Sarajevo (probably to remind how Sarajevo was part of the Ustasha state), while this year gatherings organized are being organized, it is worth repeating, on three locations in Croatia, the largest one in Udbina.

What message does such treatment of Victory Day and the date of capitulation of Ustasha and Home guard forces (along with other collaboraters from Yugoslavia) sends to Europe and to the whole world?

Just one thing: as far as Victory Day is concerned, we’re not sure whether it should be and how celebrated, because in the meantime we succeeded in transforming the winners into criminals and murderers, and their Supreme Commander as “one of the 10 mega murderer of the 20th century” , and are open to considering the Day of Liberation of the Croatian Metropolis as the day of the beginning of its occupation (this, under the mask of the freedom of public speech can be calmly stated today – as an explanation why the street of May 8th 1945. was abolished . On the other hand, we are very engaged in commemorating those forces and their members who, ignoring the unconditional capitulation of the Third Reich signed on May 8th in Reims and on May 9th in Berlin, continued fighting until mid-May, trying to escape Tito’s partisans, knowing that among the partisans there is hardly anyone who has not directly or indirectly felt the Ustasha terror. Official Croatia and the Chatolic church are commemorating and mourning their defeat, because they were – as it is written in a stone memorial at Bleiburg field “the Croatian army.” Were they really? And what were the Croatian partisans?

There is not a single country in the world that would organize commemorations for war criminals executed without trial or sentenced to death (and that there were such people in the Bleiburg field is an indisputable fact). Croatia is an exception – for now. And we have listed these two categories of post-war victims (if that is an appropriate term) because retaliation was not a specific feature of Yugoslavia. It took place, on a larger or smaller scale, for several weeks or several months in all the European countries occupied until then. In France, unofficial estimates list about 100,000 liquidated collaborators, while the leader of the Free Frence, who would later become the president of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, officially admitted 10,000, with the laconic remark : “Given what they were doing at the time of the occupation, France can live with this”.

Croatia may soon find itself in the company of several other countries, former Soviet satellites, which are well immersed in historical-revisionist waters, which allow marches of former members of SS units and which – like Ukraine – proclaims notorious collaborators (Stepan Bandera) as national heroes. But, will it mean that Croatia is on the right way by (almost) ignoring V-day and by glorifying and mourning the members of the collaborationist forces? Not at all! This will be just be another worrying indicator of the divisions within the European Union and of the abandoning, by some of its “young” members the ideas and ideals that guided those who conceived the project of a united Europe. That accepting the idea of the possibility of a new war (and the EU should have prevented it for all time) is not just a theoretical possibility, is best seen from the wholehearted adherence of part of the EU to the American policy of confrontation with the Russian Federation (even armed, military drills lasting for several months in Europe just now, demonstrate this). 

And, finally, let’s go back to the name of the memorial day in mid-May, mentioned earlier. It is the memorial day for the Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence. What does that mean? That only Ustashas (Croatian fascists) and Home guards were fighters for Croatian freedom and independence? Given the date, such a conclusion seems only possible. But, if that is the case, then all those Croats (not to mention Serbs from Croatia) who fought in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army were the enemies of Croatian freedom and independence. But, if somehow we “remembered” what is written in the Constitution, if today’s Croatia, democratic and independent Croatia, “generously” added Partisans to Ustashe and Home Guard, this would mean the completion and realization of morbid ideas of the first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman who wanted to bury the remains of the victims of fascism and anti-fascist fighters together with those who killed them in the area of the former Ustasha concentration camp Jasenovac.  Tudjman then, under pressure from abroad (even from the USA), had to give up copying something that was realized in Spain during his long-term dictatorship by the openly pro-fascist genelisimus Francisco Franco (who in the meantime was “removed” from that memorial complex by democratic Spanish authorities). .

His successors went a step further. While Tudjman never attacked the People’s Liberation Struggle (he participated in it), nor did he utter an ugly word about Marshal Tito, they “bravely” abolished Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb (and none of the candidates for Zagreb mayor dares to say that he would return the square with that name), they tolerate and even encourage the harshest revision of history (as if learning from Serbian right-wingers, but also the current authorities who marked Victory Day with an academy with pictures of Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović and partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, claiming the resistance to fascism only for the Serbian people), they are (almost) ignoring Victory Day and glorifying the sacrifice of those who had been on the side of Nazi-Fascism throughout World War II.

Does today’s Croatia (not only the official) really has a dilemma: either to celebrate the V-day, or to mourn the surrender of quisling forces near Bleiberg, their defeat? Judging by what we are witnessing – no! And his is devastating not only for Croatia, but also for the European Union of which Croatia is a member .

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Serbia’s EU accession: Pipe Dream or Possible Reality?

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Until recently, Serbia was considered as one of the main candidates for European Union (EU) accession and as a role model for the other Balkan states in the region who aspire to EU membership. It regularly received praise from Western leaders, including Angela Merkel (DW 2015) with whom Aleksander Vucic, Serbia’s President, has a particularly strong relationship (Mitrovic 2018). However, over the last 2 years, Serbia’s commitments to EU accession have been stagnating, and recently, political backsliding has been noted in the country with increasingly more power being in the hands of the executive. Serbia’s hopes of becoming an EU member state by 2025 are slowly slipping away. Thus, the following questions arise: Is Serbia still set upon its European path? And, if not the EU, where does modern Serbia’s interests lie in terms of international cooperation and assistance?

The current political situation

State capture in Serbia is a term that has recently entered the current discourse, and there is much evidence to suggest that the level of democracy in Serbia is decreasing. Since ascending to the presidency, Aleksandr Vucic has managed to establish a regime which resembles that of an autocracy, establishing a small network of close allies who control key institutions (Richter, S. Wunsch, N. 2020). Despite the fact that executive power in Serbia is vested in the government and not in the president, his position as leader of The Serbian Progressive Party, the majority party in the Serbian government, gives him control of the parliamentary majority and thus the government (Russell 2019). The democratic accountability of the executive is also very weak with laws often passed in urgent procedure and without debate. In the period from March 2018 to March 2019, urgent parliamentary procedures were used for 44% of legislative procedures, often under the excuse of EU membership (European Commission 2020). Furthermore, as the opposition continue to boycott the legislative procedures, the government has been given free rein of the executive. Media freedom is another area where Serbia seems to be backtracking. According to the V-Dem institute (2020), it is among the top ten countries that have become more autocratic over the last ten years, while a majority of media outlets promote government policy with few media outlets offering alternative views (European Commission 2020). The President of the European Federation of Journalists stated himself that “Serbia is [the] country with the worst violations of media freedoms in the Western Balkan region” (Fabijančić 2019). A case in point which should be raised is the assassination of the prominent Kosovo-Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo-Serb politician for, what many believe, not taking a stronger pro Serb stance in relation to the ongoing dispute with Kosovo. Despite the fact that the country has recently adopted a new media strategy which seeks to improve media freedoms, the strategy has so not been implemented so far and nothing has been done to improve the overall environment of freedom of expression (European Commission 2020).

As in many other autocratic regimes, corruption is another problem with which Serbia struggles. Although the country should be given some credit as it has actively implemented a few laws that aim to curtail corruption (European Commission 2020), the legal framework for the fight against corruption in Serbia is weak. The position of The Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency is weakened by an unclear division of mandates for implementing the anticorruption strategy as well as by the executive, which regularly comments on arrests and detentions in the media possibly bringing about a drastic effect on the final outcome (Transparency International 2016).

One only needs to look at the results of the recent ‘Nations in transit’ report released by Freedom House, a US non-governmental organisation which conducts research on democracy and political freedom, to grasp Serbia’s current dilemma. Over the last 5 years, democratic institutions in Serbia have been gradually eroding, and where it was considered as “Free” in 2017 with a score of 76 out of 100, it is now considered as “Partly Free” with a score of 66 out of 100 (Freedom House 2020).

The country continues to declare that accession into the EU is its long-term goal; However, this backsliding is making the goal harder to accomplish. Furthermore, integration into Western structures seems to have lost much of its zeal in the country. 80% of the citizens do not support NATO membership (European Western Balkans 2020) and in a recent poll conducted in 2020 only 50% of the population would be in favour of joining the EU (Center for insights in Survey Research 2020).

Relations with Russia

The Russo-Serbian relationship is strong, characterised by a deep cultural and historical connection. In the near future, it does not seem like this relationship will change both in terms of politics and in society at large something which is also bolstered by the fact that President Vladimir Putin and President Aleksandr Vucic have a good personal relationship, with Vucic recently being presented with The Order of Alexander Nevsky (Walker 2019). Recent opinion polls also show that President Putin is the most popular foreign leader in the country. In terms of economics, the Russo-Serbian connection is also very strong. In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU), contrary to EU recommendations (Vuc 2019), and a new Russian gas pipeline running through Serbia was recently opened, which increases the country’s dependence on Russian gas. Besides, Serbia also imports a significant number of weaponries from Russia, including MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks (Phillips 2020).

However, the Russo-Serbian relationship is also maintained by another geopolitical marker, namely the independence and recognition of Kosovo. Aleksandr Vucic’s government has made it clear that it would outright reject EU membership if it required Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and its inclusion into international institutions without Belgrade receiving anything in return (EURACTIV 2020). Serbia’s accession into the EU is subject to Chapter 35 of EU accession, which relates to the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo (European Union 2015), and despite the fact that Serbia has shown engagement in the dialogue, it still has restraints in many areas, such as customs tariffs (EU report). In addition, it is still unknown if Serbia will ever be ready to officially recognize Kosovo. Its disputes with other countries that have recently changed their recognition of the country, such as Israel (The Times of Israel 2021), seem to point to the fact that Serbia is taking a tougher stance in this regard. Serbia relies on Russia’s veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in order to receive a more satisfactory resolution to the Kosovo dispute and to avoid being side-lined by the international community. Furthermore, President Vucic has publicly stated that no resolution of Serbia’s future with its former province would be possible without Moscow’s consent. Thus, via Kosovo, Russia has an ace up its sleeve which it can use to bargain with the EU, and while this remains the case, Serbia’s accession into the block is littered with question marks.

The influence of China

Russia is not the only foreign actor which has influence in Serbia. China has recently taken a large interest, something very much to chagrin of the EU and Russia. It is rapidly increasing its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Serbia, rising from €2.5 million in 2010 to €318 million in 2019. The thaw in Sino-Serbian relations is certainly nothing new, as they have been gradually improving since the creation of a strategic partnership in 2009, becoming further cemented in 2013 (Dimitrijević 2019). Serbia’s increasing relations with China have prompted to push the EU and Russia out of the limelight, and although the EU by far remains Serbia’s largest trading partner and provider of aid, the people of Serbia think otherwise. According to the Institute for European Affairs, 40% of the country thinks that China is the largest donor of aid and investor while only 17.6% was registered for the EU. The handling of the pandemic is a case in point. As China managed to act quickly and swiftly, they were easily able to win over the hearts and minds of the Serbs, while the Serbian media portrayed the EU and the US as bigoted and unable to control the pandemic. President Vucic even went as far as saying that European solidarity was a “fairy tale” while praising the President of China Xi Jingping and kissing the Chinese flag (Milić 2020). Furthermore, the country became the first in Europe to start using a Chinese Covd-19 vaccine, being left out of the EU’s December rollout and still not receiving a dose under the EU’s COVAX scheme.

Concluding remarks

Serbia is at a crossroads, and finds itself trying to juggle its interests between three geopolitical powers. The country will continue to push for EU accession as this, as President Vucic stated himself, is Serbia’s long-term strategic goal. However, the extent to which the country wants to join the bloc is under increasing consideration. Six years since membership talks began, Serbia has only managed to complete 2 chapters for EU accession and many of the commission’s recommendations stated in the EU’s annual report on the country are not implemented. It could be said that enthusiasm to join the Union is waning, but, if this is the case, Serbia is not entirely to blame. As Aleks Eror notes in Foreign Policy (2020), the EU has over the last decade had to face many internal problems and, as a result, increasingly less attention has been given to the Western Balkans. In addition, a key part of the EU’s transformative power in accession countries is the so-called ‘carrot and stick’ model where in order to reach the ‘carrot’ of EU membership, an accession country must fulfil the requirements set down by the EU. However, in the case of Serbia, the carrot seems to be losing its lure as it is increasingly looking towards its Eastern neighbours. The fact that China is willing to act as a rival economic power to the EU in Serbia and invest in the country without the strings of EU regulation attached, makes the prospects of EU accession look rather dim. In addition, at the moment, Serbia is able to live the best of both worlds. As Serbia still plays with the idea that it is committed to EU accession, it will continue to receive subsidies from Brussels, but, at the same time, the country can play to the tune of Russia and China and extract the much-needed investment from them as well as their support when Serbia does not get its way regarding the resolution of the situation in Kosovo. As long as the Kosovo issue remains open and can be exploited by outside powers, Serbia’s hopes to join the EU in 2025 look doubtful.

From our partner RIAC

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