People in the Balkans, at least those over 40, know what it’s like when their city is being “occupied” by hundreds and thousands of guests from another part of the region in just a few hours, usually because of an important match or concert of a world-famous band. It was common to travel from Sarajevo or Skopje to Belgrade for the Red Star European match 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 kilometers to the neighboring capital is an unattainable distance, even when it comes to top entertainment.
Scenes of the neighbor’s “invasion” from 30-40 years ago were repeated in Belgrade last weekend, for not at all fun occasion, but for some they were strong enough to provoke nostalgia for the former state and region without borders. 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, Northern 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 dose of AstraZeneca.
The decision of the Serbian authorities to open the door to their first neighbors for vaccination has nothing to do with reviving warm memories of the former Yugoslavia, no matter how much it could not (or did not want to) be avoided by many who came to Belgrade. 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, because they can’t do that at home and probably won’t be able to for months. They received the vaccine in Belgrade, with which they already have an open road to the EU countries, and they will be able to do that in the future when the digital vaccine certificate starts to work. Their motives are quite clear and understandable, but what about Serbia’s motives, because they are often problematized in the European public?
For months now, Serbia has been stable, in the very European and even world top 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. Significantly higher than the EU average, which is slightly higher than 4% of the population that received both doses of the vaccine and thus it is completely protected from the virus. Such figures allow Serbia the “luxury” of distributing certain amounts of the vaccine to its closest neighbors, whose statistics were catastrophic 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 these days, 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 very 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, labor 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. Especially in the coming months, when the opening of economies, strengthening of transport and especially tourism is expected. Part of this strategy is certainly the open regime of crossing the Serbian border for citizens of all countries in the region.
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 first neighbors. Just as all internal measures in the EU, but also cross-border ones, are exclusively a consequence of the interests of the Union and each of its members individually.
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 completely superficially discussed, and especially there will be no “Great Serbia”, which is also one of the missed theses lately. 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”.