As pandemic spreads rival powers deploy soft power and aid to advance foreign policy goals
Shaun Walker Central and eastern Europe correspondent – The Guardian
A billboard showing Chinese president Xi Jinping’s face next to the words ‘Thank you, Brother Xi’. Photograph: Andrej Isaković/AFP via Getty Images
First, the Chinese came to Belgrade, with planeloads of equipment and six medical experts to help coordinate national coronavirus policy. An emotional Serbian president kissed the Chinese flag in gratitude and slammed Europe for its lack of assistance.
Then came the Russians, who flew in less crucial but nevertheless welcome resources on military jets with much media fanfare.
Finally the Europeans came, pointing out that they had been there all along and had funded significantly more than Russia and China put together.
In Serbia, a candidate country for eventual EU accession that has also courted Moscow and Beijing in recent years, 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.
In Serbia, it all started on 15 March, the day president Aleksandar Vučić declared a state of emergency. It was the same day that a statement from European commission president Ursula von der Leyen appeared to suggest a ban on exporting medical supplies from the bloc. This infuriated Vučić and led to an emotional outburst.
“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,” Vučić told the nation. He asked China for supplies, equipment and advice on fighting the pandemic, and soon after, a plane landed in Belgrade.
“It was not exactly what we would want to hear from a government that claims it is doing its utmost to join the EU,” said one European diplomat based in Belgrade. But even in Spain and Italy there has been anger at the lack of a coordinated European response to coronavirus, and for those outside the bloc like Serbia, the rejection was felt even more strongly.
“The EU was initially a bit slow and clumsy. This is what happens very often with the EU, of course it cannot be as fast and interventionist in the way China or Russia can be,” said Milena Lazarević of the European Policy Centre in Belgrade.
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.
A promised mass-testing regime is not yet up to speed and reports suggest the testing procedure is chaotic. But Serbian officials are hopeful that implementing the strict Chinese measures early will mean the country avoids a large-scale epidemic as seen in western European countries. As of Sunday, Serbia has 3,380 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 74 deaths.
Russia also sent aid, mainly disinfectant solution 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.
Since Vučić’s outburst, the EU has also been working hard to showcase the ways in which it has helped Serbia. The EU delegation in the country noted that more than €200m (£176m) of grants and €250m of loans have been provided to help build and equip medical facilities over the past two decades. An EU-funded laboratory, initially designed to do quality control tests for milk and other food products, has been repurposed as a coronavirus testing lab. A further €93m of funds has been pledged by the EU 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 the 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.
“In times of crisis, a plane with emergency materials may have a big public effect but the structural work in the health sector for many years is easily forgotten,” said the European diplomat.
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.”