Vaccines as a new weapon in a 21st century ‘Great Game’6 min read

 In COVID-19, Editorial, Politics, Southeastern Europe

February editorial. Much news has been made of vaccine nationalism’ in the wake of the recent conflict between the EU Commission, the pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, and third countries such as the UK. However, of less focus is the ongoing power-play in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Countries such as China and Russia, who have developed their own vaccines, are now able to export supplies to smaller countries in Europe.

For those smaller countries; the decision to authorise vaccines from Moscow or Beijing can act as much as a political statement as one based on medical need; a statement that can help them gain political leverage against the EU, or act to gain the support of allies at home or abroad. Equally, the rejection of such offers and adherence to the EU’s vaccination scheme be seen as political commitment to the EU, choosing geopolitical sensitivities over speed of vaccine supply. This was first seen in the early days of the pandemic with ‘mask diplomacy’, but has now extended with greater potency to vaccinations.

The EU has often considered the Balkans as its own backyard–the ‘neighbourhood’–yet its policies on vaccine purchasing, and alleged stockpiling have gone down badly amongst non-member neighbours. Serbia and Albania have been united in their criticism of the EU. Albanian President Edi Rama described the EU’s policy as ‘morally and politically unacceptable’, leaving Albania struggling with only a handful of donated vaccines. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić compared the EU’s approach to the Titanic ‘…the rich and the richest save themselves and their loved ones’.

Vaccines, which are not only key to saving lives but returning lives and the economy to some semblance of normality, are desperately desired, especially in countries that can ill-afford prolonged lockdowns or economic depressions. Yet, to extend the metaphor, they haven’t been given a seat in the EU’s lifeboat.

Even those countries within the EU have found the lethargic pace of the EU’s roll-out frustrating, especially when compared to the rapid accelerations in Israel, the UK, and the USA. Some such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, a country often criticised for courting the support of Putin’s Russia, have authorised the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. This is partially out of frustration and a desire to show themselves above the competency of the EU but also as another step in a long game of playing both sides to Orbán’s advantage.

Ukraine, a metaphorical and actual battleground between the West and Russian spheres, has also politicised the vaccination programme, with Members of the Rada (Parliament) overwhelmingly voting to outlaw the approval of Sputnik V. For a country suffering badly from the pandemic, and whose vaccination schedule is only set to commence in mid-February thanks to the UN’s COVAX scheme, this is a risky move.

Whilst many countries have been reluctant to authorise the Sputnik V due to a previous lack of transparency from Russia over its safety and efficacy data, to outlaw it totally is indicative of the geopolitical game which is playing out in the region. Ukraine’s government obviously feels the political and societal leverage Russia would gain from rolling out its vaccine in Ukraine is too big a strategic cost, even if it means prolonging the pandemic. Perhaps justified, given that Russia has begun to send vaccine supplies to Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

However, we would be wrong to assume that this is a return to the simple binary days of the Cold War. China too is making its weight felt in the Balkans. Serbia, which until recently had been lagging behind in the vaccination effort, has now begun to steam ahead, thanks to plentiful supplies of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Serbia is now second only to the UK in progress, covering nearly 7% of its population as of the beginning of February. Serbia has been a friendly partner in China’s efforts to build alliances in the Balkans, from the new high-speed rail lines to Budapest to provisions of PPE in the early days of the pandemic. This endeavour now appears to have paid dividends, whilst those countries relying on the EU for support are sorely lacking. Serbia in turn is suggesting donations of its vaccine supplies to neighbouring Bosnia and Kosovo, further complicating the ongoing power tussle.

The EU and the West have been squandering good-will by failing to provide supplies in the poorest areas of the continent. Even pro-Western countries such as Kosovo and North Macedonia have yet to receive any vaccine supplies and their patience is wearing thin. As one North Macedonian official was quoted in the Financial Times:  ‘We wanted to go for western vaccines to show where we as a country belong, and initially excluded the possibility of negotiating with the Russians and the Chinese… Someone might use the situation and say that in times of hardships it is China and Russia that help, while the western governments are failing’.

Of course this is only the beginning. As larger countries begin to complete vaccinations of their vulnerable citizens, the opportunities to use their vaccine stockpiles for geopolitical gain will only grow. China and Russia aren’t the only burgeoning players in the region; Turkey too is beginning to show its global ambitions once more. This has been evident in the recent conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, but reports of brazen election interference in the Balkans suggest President Erdogan is turning his attention to his European borders.

Turkey has long been expanding its soft power by funding the construction of mosques and schools in Kosovo and Bosnia, but this seems a bolder step. It is not  out of the question that Ankara would utilise its future vaccine supply to leverage support in Bulgaria and beyond. Bulgaria is of course part of the EU vaccination programme but so far has the lowest rates of vaccination, far below neighbouring Serbia.

Of course, as the EU’s vaccine programme ramps up, this may well change. Wealthy Western countries have already suggested the excess vaccine supplies they have ordered will be donated in time. However, with China and Russia able to provide supplies now, this may damage the EU and the West’s image across Southern and Eastern Europe and indeed beyond. If the EU doesn’t act decisively it may find that it will lose the relationships and goodwill it has taken decades to cultivate both in its neighbourhood and within its borders. For the Balkans, it may open up temporary opportunities in playing this new great game to their advantage, reaping the rewards of global powers vying for influence. However the return to old notions of great powers carving off spheres of influence bodes badly for the cooperation, peace, and political stability the region sorely needs.

Featured image: Drink some chlorine and get better / Mika Baumeister
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