Nobody could accuse Serbia of hoarding coronavirus vaccines. Not content with inoculating its people faster than any other country in continental Europe, it has taken on the role of the vaccine fairy for neighbouring states in the Western Balkans. Late last week, word started to spread that, for a limited time, Serbia was inoculating all comers. The car park at the main vaccination centre in Belgrade quickly filled with vehicles sporting number plates from across the former Yugoslavia and beyond. Bosnian and Montenegrin accents, as well as a smattering of Macedonian and Albanian, could be heard in the orderly, fast-moving queues at the cavernous halls of the city’s World Trade Center.
Some people were clutching printouts confirming their registration on Serbia’s efficient online vaccination portal. Others, without appointments, queued in hope. Medics jabbed the lot of them – not only in the capital but in other cities close to national borders. Serbia’s deservedly renowned hospitality appears to have played a part. “If someone has driven five hours from Montenegro, how could we turn them away?” said one official.
The unlikely catalyst for this vaccine bonanza was the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. It asked the government to make inoculations available for businesspeople from across the region, following similar efforts for other professional groups, including Bosnian medics and journalists from North Macedonia. “We looked at this from a practical perspective,” says the chamber’s co-ordinator, Marko Mandić. “This is good for the economy and it’s good for the economies of our neighbours.” The request coincided with the imminent expiry of a batch of Astrazeneca vaccines and, as the news spread, it was put to good use in inoculating a far wider group than just the chamber’s affiliates. In all, Serbia says that it jabbed 22,000 of its neighbours and it will repeat the trick when they return for their second doses. Now that’s vaccine diplomacy.
Guy De Launey is Monocle’s correspondent for the Western Balkans and is based in Slovenia.