The countries of the Western Balkans are waiting for the first shipments of vaccines

Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

While the United Kingdom is celebrating the administration of at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine to 15 million people, and the EU exceeds 23 million distributed doses, several European countries have still failed to give a single dose.

Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Herzegovina are still waiting to receive the first shipments of vaccines, while deliveries in Albania and Northern Macedonia have so far been limited to several hundred people. The countries of the Western Balkans are key allies and possible future members of the European Union, but they have been left out of the immediate plans for the supply of vaccines in the Union, writes CNN.

According to CNN, the EU has provided more than 2.3 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines and said it expects to share some of them with others. It has also set aside 70m euros for the Western Balkans region to buy some of these doses in the future, but as its own distribution is slow and delayed, those countries are still waiting. And as relatively rich countries, at least in a global context, they are also not a top priority for programs designed to help the world’s poorest countries access vaccines.

They have joined the COVAX program, which aims to make access to vaccines as good and equitable as possible worldwide, but its limited supply means that its primary focus is on 92 low- and middle-income countries that cannot afford vaccines without funding, and the Western Balkans are not among them. As self-financing members of COVAX, they should receive 850,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine combination – but when they could arrive is not clear.

The tragedy of the Western Balkans

“The constant tragedy of the Western Balkans is that they are on the brink,” said Allison Carragher, a visiting Carnegie Europe global policy fellow.

Many see the forgetting of the Western Balkans by the EU as a missed opportunity.

–  This is a small region in terms of population, which means that with a small investment in vaccines, the EU would gain a lot in terms of soft power and influence in the region – said Alba Cela, executive director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies. The fact that the EU has not done so allows other actors to play a role, she added.

Engjellushe Morina, a senior policy associate at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the feeling of neglect could seriously affect the region’s security.

“Europe has really neglected the region for so long and is vulnerable to the influence of other external actors,” she said.

–  That’s where Russia comes in. That’s where China comes in. This is where Turkey enters and they have filled the gap in various aspects – the company.

China is performing

Faced with the possibility of a long wait, Serbia, the largest of the six Western Balkan countries, took matters into its own hands and sought vaccines elsewhere. China and Russia were ready to jump in. The Serbian government has announced that China has so far delivered 1.5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, catapulting the country to 7 million in the highest rank of the global vaccination race. According to government data, about 850,000 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Serbia since Monday. Most of them received the Chinese vaccine, although the government said it also received 90,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and 40,950 Pfizer / BioNtech vaccines. The price Serbia paid for the vaccines has not been disclosed.

Adnan Ćerimagić, a senior analyst at ESI, the Institute for Policy and Research, said that without the Chinese vaccine, Serbia would be in a similar position as the rest of the region.

–  The overall success of the vaccination program relies on China and I think it works for China as well, using Serbia as a place where they can have influence in Europe… the media report that thanks to the Chinese vaccine Serbia works better than Germany and many other countries – he said.

Carragher said the deal was a win-win situation.

–  There is definitely a clear benefit for Serbia, not only in terms of reputation, by being the main vaccinator on the European continent, but also in terms of legitimizing the government that has deviated from democracy – she said and added:

–  But here, you know, whenever you are the first in Europe, you seem to be doing something good.

Profit of China

And China has a lot to gain.

“President Xi said his goal is to make this region the first region in the world to be fully covered by the Belt and Road initiative, and from that perspective, such alliances can be used for other diplomatic priorities,” Carragher said.

The Belt and Road initiative is China’s global infrastructure policy that seeks to create new trade corridors connecting China with Asia, Africa, and Europe.

–  This is also the basic principle behind the vaccine program, which is what they also sell, legitimizing the lack of transparency and vaccines that were widely distributed before they were actually declared safe – added Carragher, pointing to the fact that Russia has started a vaccination program before finalizing clinical trials until China published their data in a peer-reviewed publication. China retaliated with a counterattack after criticism for a lack of transparency over vaccines, launching attacks on vaccines produced by other companies and countries. Russia has been criticized for the early introduction of the then untested vaccine. But earlier this month, reviewed results of a phase 3 trial of Sputnik V showed that it has a very high-efficiency rate – providing some sort of confirmation for the country.

Vaccines are not China’s first venture in the Western Balkans either – over the past decade, it has invested heavily in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and Macedonia, financing major infrastructure and resource projects, including highways in Bosnia and Herzegovina and mines and factories in Serbia. . It has also opened Confucius institutes and university departments of sinology throughout the region.

The beginning of vaccination in Serbia was such a success that it enabled the government to start its circle of regional diplomacy with the help of vaccines. Last week, it donated 4,688 doses of its Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine to Northern Macedonia, which is still awaiting any of the more than 100,000 doses it has provided through COVAX. The donation was highlighted as the main sign of co-operation, as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Northern Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev took part in a handover ceremony at the border. On Wednesday, Serbia announced it would donate 4,000 doses of the Russian vaccine to Montenegro, which is also still awaiting other deliveries. Donations are a symbolic gesture. But in this historically unstable, vulnerable region, symbols like this are significant.

Kosovo accuses Serbia of playing vaccine policy

When the Serbian government announced it would donate vaccines to Serbs living in Kosovo, the Kosovo government accused it of playing vaccine policy and “smuggling uncertified pharmaceuticals” into the country. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and most Western countries, including the United States, recognize it as an independent state. However, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo has ordered over 100,000 doses of vaccine from COVAX and expects deliveries from the EU as part of a 70m-euro scheme.

The Serbian government also said it had donated some of its doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to Republika Srpska – one of the two highly autonomous entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina. The vaccination of the first 1,000 health workers began there last week, according to the Republika Srpska Ministry of Health’s website. The region has also ordered 400,000 doses of the Russian vaccine. The government of the Bosniak-Croat entity in the country, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said it had ordered 800,000 doses through the EU scheme. Separately, the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country-wide governing body, ordered 1.2 million doses through the COVAX program.

Albania has provided 500,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine through a direct contract with the company, although less than 10,000 have been delivered to the government so far – not enough to vaccinate 23,000 health workers in the country. In addition to this contract with Pfizer, Albania has also ordered about 1.1m doses through COVAX, ensuring it will have enough doses for its entire population.

The EU could have done more

Although the EU has promised to help the region buy vaccines for COVID-19, there are no indications yet how it will work. But from a strategic and security point of view, the region is crucial for the EU. Geographically, it is completely surrounded by EU member states, but it is still vulnerable. Albania, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia are officially candidate countries for EU membership, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are seen as potential future candidates.

–  There is a lack of strategic vision. “If you want to integrate this region – and it is de facto already integrated into the EU because we have free movement and we have a lot of people practically looking back and forth – there is no point in the EU not providing the region with vaccines,” she said. vaccination in neighboring countries posed a risk to the EU.

–  This is a very hot topic here at the moment – said Cela, noting that there is an irresistible feeling in the region that the European Union could have done more for the Western Balkans.

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