Like those infected with Covid 19, where one’s temperature drops after a while, the temperature also seems to have fallen regarding the recent explosion of Serbia’s gratitude to China for medical assistance, which has triggered various negative reverberations across Europe. When Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, disgusted by the EU’s closure of its borders to prevent exports of medical equipment in mid-March, requested and promptly received the necessary material from China, he declared that “European solidarity is only a fairy tale” and that assistance could only be obtained from “brotherly China”. Many major European media outlets have labeled Serbia as a country that is turning its back on its European path, and turning instead to China. Furthermore, Europeans were upset that Serbia’s thanks to Beijing had provided China with a much-needed propaganda boost on European soil. Indeed, at that moment, the Serbian case was extremely important for propagandists in Beijing, as they sought to change the image of the creator of the global problem to a global saviour.
The following weeks increased the impression that Serbia, along with Montenegro, possibly the most likely next countries to become member states of the EU, had abandoned that strategic goal. That overnight, hurt by the lack of European solidarity, Serbia had accepted China’s outstretched hand and permanently tied its future to Beijing.
The Balkans are already used to the EU sprinting like Carl Lewis – a shaky start, but, rest assured, it will always be the first to reach the finishing line. Immediately following the first shipment of aid from China to Serbia, greeted with fanfare and a mutual toast to “steel friendship”, there was a European wave of assistance to Serbia, both through the payment of medical equipment, through transport funding, and through concrete financial support programs for Serbia during the epidemic, and in particular for the period after. The EU has approved € 700 million for post-crisis support to the Western Balkan economies, most of which will go to Serbia, as the largest of the six economies in the region aiming for EU membership. Support is focused on small and medium-sized enterprises as the most vulnerable to the crisis, as well as macro-financial loans to Balkan countries. Previously, the EU had already granted Serbia about € 94 million to fight Covid 19 and for emergency intervention in the economy. This possibly says even more about the synchronisation of Serbian and European efforts to address the consequences of the epidemic as a congruence of post-crisis economic recovery strategies, for which Serbia plans to spend around five billion euros (about 11% of GDP).
However, China will not withdraw. Its relationship with Serbia began decades ago, built on the political and ideological plane of animosity towards the West, represented in Serbia by then President Slobodan Milošević. These were the dark Balkan days of civil wars, economic isolation and political repression of the regime, for which opponents said was ready to “import” hundreds of thousands of Chinese people and provide them with work permits and even citizenship. This ideological fraternity was also certified by blood in 1999 when the Chinese embassy building was hit in the NATO bombing of Belgrade. Although Serbia has taken the European path since 2000, led by liberal and pro-Western politicians, flirtation with Beijing has not stopped. In 2010, one such government decided, at the request of China, to be among the few countries that boycotted the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. China’s political support for Belgrade is permanent, reflected in the non-recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, which is especially important for Serbia in the UN Security Council, in which China, with Russia, is its main ally.
The ideological closeness of the past has been compounded by economic “fraternity” in the form of a steady increase in Chinese investments and loans in the sphere of infrastructure (railways, roads, energy, etc.) and industry. Chinese state-owned investors have taken over two virtually unresolvable economic and social black holes in Serbia – Železara Smederevo (46 million euros) and the Bor mining complex (350 million euros). Serbia is also one of the more active participants in the European arm of the “One Belt, One Road” project, with 16 other Central and Eastern European countries, mostly already EU members.
As the corona virus epidemic begins to die down, it can clearly be said that Serbia has waged that struggle, relying heavily on the help and experience of China. Its population isolation measures are among the most repressive in Europe, with long curfews and complete isolation of the elderly. From the outset of the crisis, Chinese doctors have been the main advisers to Serbian epidemiologists, and the measures taken are similar to those of a few months ago in China. The question remains what will be the final health outcomes of the fight against corona virus in Serbia, but it is already clear that they will be achieved with the declaration of a state of emergency and maximum restriction of movement, which places Serbia among those countries that have subordinated democratic freedom to the fight against contagion.
However, the “day after” in Serbia does not and probably will not continue in the Chinese style. There are several reasons for this, and that is why we are probably closer to those few European voices who have refrained from criticising Serbia, but have already characterised it as a testing ground on which more global players compete with their soft power. Besides China, there are Russia, the EU and the USA.
First, economic intervention in the Serbian economy will be the most substantial from EU funds. This is clear already, and it should not be excluded that it will be accompanied by new financial packages from Western resources. The model of economic recovery in the post-crisis period is very similar to the European one, which speaks volumes about Belgrade’s intentions in which direction it wants to proceed. The immediate political future, as far as Serbia is concerned, will be strongly influenced by the West, because immediately after the end of the epidemic, progress, is anticipated in the currently frozen talks on Kosovo, and is decisively governed by the US and the EU. In the event of a worsening West-China conflict over responsibility for planetary expansion of Covid 19, Serbia would likely support China, but the question is whether it can do so in a rather different political and economic framework, which will inevitably follow immediately after the end of the pandemic. Serbia will continue to be tied to the EU economy, with nearly three quarters of its total international trade, as well as billions of euros of remittances by Serbians working in the EU. Also, it is already extensively involved in supply chains of European industrial giants such as Siemens and Fiat, for example, and Serbia’s participation in this regard would increase strongly if a number of European manufacturers decide to relocate from China after the crisis (which is realistic) to a closer environment, and the Balkans are ideal.
The head of European diplomacy, Spaniard Joseph Borrell is rightly angry with Serbia today, where in the course of the crisis euphoria, billboards displayed signs of gratitude to China and not to the European Union, although EU assistance is considerably greater. However, it would not be surprising if his anger subsides, much quicker than many expect. The months ahead may come as a surprise to all those rushing to declare Vučić’s acclaim to fraternal China for swiftly rendered aid as a major turn of Serbia from the West to the Far East.