Op-Ed: Vaccination in the Balkans – The absence of Europe and the “helping hand” from China, Russia

Op-Ed: Vaccination in the Balkans – The absence of Europe and the “helping hand” from China, Russia

By Renato Lekka

Although diplomatic language and political discussions speak of European solidarity in the Balkan countries affected by the coronavirus, it seems that the Europeans will not keep – once again – their promises. One could argue that this is perfectly normal, since in Europe the basic timetable even for its member countries has not been clarified yet, while the rivalry with AstraZenecawas only just settled a few days ago, while there is a constant barter between the countries. It is clear that the European absence can create new fait accompli in our region.

China and Russia are already crating a foothold in the region. Serbia has ordered 6.5 million doses of vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative (few vaccines from Pfizer). In January, it received 1 million doses of the Chinese vaccine, while it is also waiting for doses of the Russian drug Sputnik V, with the two governments discussing, in fact, the possibility of local production of the Russian vaccine. Serbia is known to have close economic and political ties with China, as Beijing has invested heavily in the country, which it hopes to use as a regional base for the Belt and Road initiative.

Serbia has not only started vaccinating dynamically but is first among European countries and fourth worldwide, and among the few countries that, according to UBS estimates, are moving fast enough to have vaccinated one third of their population within 2021. In fact, Serbia is moving faster than the United Kingdom. “Keep in mind Serbia’s leading role in the Balkans. We must offer a hand of co-operation to our neighbours”, said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Albania and North Macedonia have almost no vaccinations. Prime Minister Zaev’s country has been hit hard by the pandemic, with 1,322 deaths from COVID-19 per million, making it the tenth country in the world mortality-wise. Skopje is waiting for the COVAX platform, while they are also waiting for vaccines from Greece. From the European side, Athens will be the country that will give vaccines to North Macedonia (see previous article). However – although the date is not yet known – North Macedonia will soon receive 200,000 doses of the vaccine from China.

Albania has been struck hard by coronavirus. It has been counting thousands of cases for days now, with the average number of cases in the last week exceeding 1,000 while the tests performed are not more than 4,000 per day. A draft of COVAX released in the last 24 hours states that Albania will receive 141,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Rama government is in dire need of vaccines and has opened channels of communication with all possible allies so that it can bring vaccines to the country as soon as possible. It is recalled that in Albania elections are held on April 25, so we are talking about a government road race but also a fierce political confrontation over pandemic management.

Economically, China has overcome the crisis much more easily and quickly while Europe is stuck in a new recession. Europe is losing ground in the geostrategic arena, after the temporary optimism caused by the creation of the Recovery Fund. It seems that the game in the Balkans is being lost. The EU needs to step up so as to prevent the growth gap from China and the US to widen. Similarly, it must prevent the widening of inequalities to the detriment of southern European countries, as was the case with the euro economic crisis./ibna