In his recent article for the renowned British daily, The Guardian, Shaun Walker, the newspapers’ Central and Eastern European correspondent, writes about Serbia’s position in relation to superpowers – namely, Russia, China and the EU – and them exercising soft power over Serbia during the coronavirus epidemic.
Walker says that, in Serbia, “the intersection of competing “coronavirus diplomacies” is highly visible.
“As the pandemic gathers speed, major players are looking to use soft power and aid to fulfil their foreign policy goals. For the EU, it’s trying to prove that talk of European values and solidarity is not just empty words. For China, it’s changing the narrative to present the country as the solution to coronavirus, not its cause. For Russia, it’s using more modest resources for maximum effect, with Russian military vehicles driving through Italy or a planeload of equipment despatched to the US partly produced by a sanctioned company. The Americans, focused internally under the Trump administration, have largely been absent from the coronavirus diplomacy game”, Walker writes about the current situation.
As for Serbia, he says that President Vucic declared the state of emergency in the country on 15th March, the same day when the EU European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen informed about the EU blocking the export of its medical supplies which left Vucic infuriated.
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He said:” “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help. That is China,” and then proceeded to ask China for supplies, equipment and advice on fighting the pandemic, and soon after, a plane landed in Belgrade.
A foreign diplomat in Belgrade commented on Vucic’s move by saying:” It was not exactly what we would want to hear from a government that claims it is doing its utmost to join the EU.”
Walker adds:” China was happy to step into the gap. Serbian officials say the Chinese experts, who have remained in the country, are now running the government’s coronavirus policy. Unlike most of Europe, Serbia is following the Chinese model of isolating even mild cases of coronavirus in large field hospitals, rather than trusting people to self-isolate.
The Chinese also recommended an absolute lockdown such as the one that had been implemented in Wuhan, said one Serbian official. This was rejected on the basis that the Serbian public would not accept it, but strict curfews have been put in place, and those over 70 are confined to their homes at all times.”
Russia also sent aid, mainly disinfectant solutions for hospitals and apartment block entrances. Back in Moscow, opposition figures have griped that the Kremlin has been sending equipment abroad for propaganda gain, while doctors at home lack basic supplies. In Serbia, the help was welcome, though there was a sense that the fanfare around the deliveries may outweigh their actual use.
However, the EU did step in and pledged aid to the amount of 93 million EUR over the short and medium-term to fight coronavirus and its effects..
“The coronavirus situation is in many ways an extension of the previous battle for hearts and minds in Serbia. A survey carried out last December showed that many Serbs believed Russia or China to be the country’s largest donor over the past two decades, while in fact, the EU had given about 100 times more than either,” The Guardian article says and adds:
“Vučić has since also praised European aid, but the big Chinese gestures are likely to stick in the public memory. The prime minister, Ana Brnabić, has said she wants to build a monument to Serbian-Chinese friendship when the pandemic is over, while a billboard in Belgrade, paid for by a pro-government tabloid, has a simple message: “Thank you, Brother Xi.”
This post is also available in: Italiano