June 19, 2020
By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow
In May, Serbia launched a campaign that specifically targeted Chinese tourists in an effort designed to persuade the PRC’s citizens to keep the Western Balkan country in mind as a destination once the pandemic is over. At the centre of the campaign is none other than Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, with his photo on posters inviting people from China to continue to visit Serbia. This tourism stunt is only the latest example of Belgrade cosying up to Beijing, but also one that comes at a sensitive time in East-West relations. China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak prompted a series of backlashes from the United States, culminating with Washington accusing Beijing of exacerbating the pandemic by concealing information, and initially not allowing the world public to know about the real scale of the problem. While the European Union has not been as firm in its stance on China’s actions, there are more and more calls for Brussels to reconsider its relationship with Beijing – and an escalation of tensions could eventually force Serbia to choose between Chinese funds and a European future.
In the last decade, Beijing has quietly become increasingly present in Serbia, and the latter is currently seen as one of the former’s closest allies in Europe. Alongside the already mentioned tourism partnership, China now owns numerous companies in Serbia, is a partner in major building projects, and a supplier of surveillance equipment for the Western Balkan state. Since the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement back in 2009, bilateral trade has increased significantly, and Serbia has received considerable Chinese financing towards much-needed infrastructure improvements. The Bar-Belgrade highway, the Belgrade-Budapest railway, and the new metro system for the Serbian capital are only a few examples of Beijing’s investment in its main Western Balkan partner, and are the focal point of China’s presence in the region in the last decade.
The coronavirus crisis seems to have only brought the two countries closer together. In mid-March, in response to the European Union’s initial announcement that exports of some medical protective equipment to non-EU countries have been restricted in an effort to keep sufficient supplies within the bloc, Vucic dramatically declared that “European solidarity is a fairy tale”. The Serbian President then went on to appeal for help from his “friend and brother”, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who did not waste any time in providing it. Vucic himself welcomed the Chinese medical team when they arrived in Serbia, and videos of him praising Beijing and kissing the Chinese flag have been shared widely by both countries’ media channels.
The 15 million euros that the European Union eventually made available were, by no means, received with the same flourish. No billboards materialised to celebrate Serbian-European relations, and the aid given by Brussels did not make the front pages of Belgrade’s most important newspapers. It was, in fact, not until the 6 May Zagreb summit – where Brussels declared its “unequivocal support” for membership for all six Western Balkan countries, but also noted that their aid and support greatly exceeds that provided by other countries to the region – that President Vucic publicly thanked the organisation for the financial and material help provided.
Since coming to power in 2014, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have been accused of corruption, eroding of media freedom, running campaigns against government critics and the opposition, introducing laws that affect workers’ and young people’s rights, and generally maintaining monopoly over all decision-making in the country. With President Aleksandar Vucic at their lead, they have ensured that information is controlled and manipulated, that voting is not entirely fair and free, and that political allegiance continues to matter when it comes to well-paid jobs and promotions. The SNS have gradually brought Serbia back to the social and political situation the country found itself in almost two decades before, and Belgrade’s systematic descent into authoritarianism reached a crucial point last month.
Published at the beginning of May, Freedom House’s latest ‘Nations in Transit’ report classified Serbia – along with Montenegro and Hungary – as ‘hybrid regimes’ for the first time since it began examining democratic progress in the former Communist states of Europe and Eurasia. The report argued that “years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed by Aleksandar Vucic” have led to declining standards in governance, justice, elections and media freedom, and Serbia has reached the point where it can no longer be considered a democratic country.
This has been more than evident in the past three months. In mid-March, less than a week after cases of COVID-19 started being confirmed, President Vucic imposed a state of emergency in Serbia. This state of emergency came in the middle of Belgrade’s pre-election campaign, with elections for parliament and local governments due on 26 April. While all other parties and candidates put their pre-election activities on hold, Vucic did not – under the guise of merely fulfilling his official duties, the Serbian President used every opportunity to promote both himself and his ruling SNS. Every procurement of medical equipment was followed by a public statement, and every delivery to hospitals was made in person and accompanied by a press conference. Vucic also informed citizens of what items of valuable equipment he personally secured on a daily basis, and attacked the opposition for not contributing enough funds to fight the pandemic.
Surprisingly, this veiled propaganda campaign was not without its positive results. Unlike many other world leaders, who saw their approval ratings plummet as a result of measures taken since the coronavirus crisis began, the majority of Serbian people seem to be in favour of Vucic’s decisions. According to a recent public opinion poll, published by Ipsos Strategic Marketing, Vucic’s approval ratings have skyrocketed during the pandemic, going from 44 to 61 per cent despite the state of emergency. In order to bank on this newfound popularity, the Serbian President decided to hold the previously postponed elections on 21 June – making sure that it is his “saviour of the nation” image rather than any potential post-coronavirus economic consequences that are fresh in voters’ minds when they go to the polls.
Not that his party’s win at the next elections was ever in question. Vucic’s SNS is currently running unopposed, as the majority of their pro-democratic opposition are boycotting the elections. The opposition movement Alliance for Serbia (SzS) have accused Vucic of ruling in an autocratic manner, and called for the elections to be postponed until the autumn – a delay that would have given them a chance to even the playing field. The request was unsurprisingly denied by Serbia’s parliament, where the SNS currently enjoy a majority of seats.
As things stand, Vucic is secure enough internally to see himself as having nothing to lose by employing the same foreign policy tactics. In the short-term, Chinese loans are the easiest and quickest way to implement desired projects, and one that does not involve jumping through countless political and administrative hoops. Beijing does not question whether or not a road or a bridge needs to be built, and is yet to make financial loans conditional upon reforms. Moreover, much like the ties with Russia, close relations with China are seen by the Serbian President as a means to pressure the West into increased involvement – a strategy that appears not without its successes, as evidenced by Brussels’ Zagreb summit attempt to counteract Chinese involvement in the region.
In the long-term, on the other hand, the risks of this economic partnership are likely to outweigh the benefits. Freedom House’s ‘Nations in Transit’ report included a warning on the use of ‘debt diplomacy’ by China, whereby Beijing provides countries with funds “in a way that creates political dependency”. These funds can ultimately be used to demand loyalty and political support, and block European consensus on resolutions condemning Chinese behaviour. For a country aspiring to join the European Union, this is a tight rope that may eventually become impossible to walk – especially if Brussels finds itself with no other morally correct choice than to back Washington in its escalating criticism of Beijing.
For now, however, the European Union is walking its own tight rope between the United States and China, as Brussels’ relationship with Beijing is nowhere near as clear cut as that with Russia. While Moscow is classified as a ‘threat’ and a ‘political foe’, China is an ‘economic competitor’ in key industrial fields and a ‘systemic rival’ politically, but also Brussels’ second-biggest trading partner after Washington. The European Union and China share close economic ties that neither wants to see broken, which means Brussels is forced to tread lightly in order to maintain a certain level of cooperation. This was more than evident when European officials reportedly softened their criticism of China in a report documenting governments’ efforts to promote false information about the pandemic. In its initial form, the report accused Beijing of running “a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image” – a sentence that was removed before final publication at the end of April.
Before the European Union can confidently stand up to China’s misconduct, a series of measures would need to be taken. Brussels would need to first weaken its dependence on the Chinese markets by building more diverse supply chains, and seek to replace Beijing’s funding of major building projects in both its member and candidate states. Unfortunately, as the economic consequences of the pandemic are yet to be fully felt by Europe, recovering financially once the coronavirus crisis is over is likely to take precedence – and the trade concessions that Brussels hopes to win from China will determine a deep reluctance from the former to publicly criticise the latter.
From Serbia’s point of view – much like from that of Brussels – there are more immediate costs than benefits to taking a stance against China. The severing of deep financial and material ties with Beijing would be felt acutely both by Belgrade and the European Union, particularly at a time when the post-coronavirus future is still uncertain. In the long-term, however, ‘business as usual’ with China could become unsustainable – and there will be no way around the difficult choices that will need to be made.