Serbia’s efforts to build ties with China pay off with leading vaccination scale in Europe
Published: Feb 01, 2021 10:56 PM

A plane transporting 1 million doses of Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines arrives at Belgrade, Serbia on January 16. Photo: IC

Serbia recently became the first European country to approve the use of Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic, with Serbian scholars saying Beijing is Belgrade's most significant friend in dealing with the pandemic. 

With eight land neighbors, Serbia is called the crossroad of Europe. No matter it is learning anti-virus experience from China or taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative, the Balkan country's ties with China have drawn great attention in the world in recent years.

Although some European media are fond of talking about China's "vaccine diplomacy," they also have to admit China's soft power is increasing in Serbia and other countries in southeastern Europe.

Leading in vaccination

Serbia is the first European country to receive and use Chinese vaccines, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on January 16 while welcoming the shipment of 1 million doses of China's Sinopharm inactivated COVID-19 vaccine at the Belgrade Airport. Serbia has a population of 7 million, and the 1 million doses of vaccine means those in need and at risk could receive the protection in a short time.

In March 2020, when Vucic kissed the Chinese flag at the same airport on the occasion of a delivery from China of protective masks and other equipment that were in short supply at the time, it caused astonishment in Europe. 

A Friday article in Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung said that thanks to China's help, Serbia is only behind the UK in vaccination scale in Europe. "His [Vucic] efforts to establish good relations with Beijing have paid off… China as a savior, the EU as a failure in an emergency."

As a non-EU country, Serbia could only purchase vaccines via bilateral cooperation. The arrival of Chinese vaccines also brought hope to Serbian people. Local media B92 reported that Serbia would use up 1.4 million doses of vaccines by the end of January, while the whole of the EU together used 9 million.

Ivona Ladevac, head of the Regional Centre "One Belt, One Road" under Serbia's Institute of International Politics and Economics, received the Chinese vaccine on Friday and feels good. She told the Global Times that she had registered for vaccination as early as possible. "I myself trust Chinese vaccine the most."

She said that Serbia is fortunate to be able to keep a good relationship with China, so Serbia could receive a big amount of Chinese vaccines early. Serbia is becoming a "good student" in vaccination thanks to the overall cooperation with China.

Ladevac noted that China has gained advantages by controlling the epidemic and producing many vaccines. She believed that Serbia, with China as a "big boat," could also see an economic recovery soon.

Aspiration of Serbian people

"Not all countries are satisfied with Serbia's close contact with China," Zoran Jovanovic,?chairman?of the?Serbia-BRICS Cooperation Organization, told the Global Times. Some Western countries have been exerting heavy pressure on Serbia to suppress its cooperation with China, Jovanovic noted.

"But the Serbian government has not bowed to such pressure, not least because our people see tangible benefits from our friendly relations with China," he said.

Jovanovic said that carrying out comprehensive and pragmatic cooperation with China has fundamentally provided a strong boost for Serbia to "to stand up tall" under pressure from Western countries.

Compared with some countries that have often slandered China in their domestic electoral process, in Serbia, even the opposition parties are not opposed to developing closer ties with China, because doing so would diminish their popularity among the people, Jovanovic remarked.

 "For example, our government adopted the advice of Chinese experts, and resolutely implemented strict prevention and control policies at the beginning of the epidemic in Serbia. Facts have proven that China's plan was correct, and Serbia's control of the epidemic was far better than most European countries." Jovanovic said.

Mirko Mrkic, professor at the Institute of International Media Communication in Serbia, also admires China's efforts in fighting the COVID-19 epidemic.

"Some people in Serbia would be surprised to see the news that China conducted nucleic acid test for millions of people in a few days. This figure may be far away from them, but if they compare with the surrounding countries and cities, they can immediately feel the high administrative efficiency of the Chinese government and the strong unity of the Chinese people," Mrkic told the Global Times.

'China helps the most'

A survey in Serbia in October 2020 showed that 75 percent of local people believed "China has been the most helpful country to Serbia in the past years." With China and Serbia deepening cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, more and more "Chinese elements" are being seen in Serbia.

Chinese constructors have participated in several key projects in Serbia, including  Pupinov bridge across the River Danube in Belgrade, highways connecting Serbia and neighboring countries, Hungary-Serbia railways, and Belgrade highway and subways. Chinese companies' investments in Serbia have brought great job opportunities to locals.

Before the pandemic, China and Serbia also saw a great advance in tourism cooperation. Since January 2017, Serbia became the first central-eastern European country to offer visa-free entry for Chinese tourists. A year later, the number of tourists in Serbia had surpassed 100,000 for the first time.

Moreover, in 2020, about 10 universities in Serbia offered Chinese courses, and 50 primary and high schools provided Chinese language teaching classes. Graduates who know Chinese language could find a job easily and receive a good salary. More and more young people believe "knowing Chinese will bring more opportunities."

Jovanovic pointed out that the close ties between Serbia and China have not only accelerated the pace of Serbia's development, but also boosted the cooperation between Balkan countries and China. 

"Countries such as Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia have also launched joint development projects with China in recent years because they do not want to miss the opportunity to co-develop with a fast-growing China," Jovanovic said.

Ladevac noted that in recent years, China's hard power has been increasing, and its soft power has also been reflected in cooperation with different countries. She believes that with the gradual end of the epidemic, the cooperation between Serbia and China will be further deepened and China will play a more important role on the global stage.