International aid in response to natural and manmade emergencies is a well-established practice. It demonstrates good will and solidarity, and helps victims overcome hardships. However, it can also be used to flaunt power, wealth and advanced technologies for political purposes.
Aid provided by Russia internationally, frequently amounts to nothing more than a demonstration of power, with materiel being of little practical use to the recipient. What is worse, the Russian government sends help to other countries without regard for the desperate need of its own people. This is, sadly, the case with the current Russian international coronavirus aid initiatives. In the past few weeks, Russia has dispatched and promoted its aid to the US, Italy, Serbia and other countries, as tragedy unravels throughout its own regions whose medical infrastructure is clearly not ready to effectively fight with the virus Covid-19.
On April 3 and 4, 2020, Russia sent eleven planes with 87 military officers including military medical personnel, special equipment and military transport for disinfection to Serbia from to confront the spread of the virus Covid-19. The value of aid delivered to a country with about 7 million inhabitants was just below to what Russia sent weeks prior to Italy, a country with 60 million people. With this help, Russia sent a strong message on how important Serbia was. With a message posted on his twitter account, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic profusely thanked Putin for the help: “Very good conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Confirmed friendship, and significant help will arrive in Serbia. Thank you, Vladimir Putin and the Russian people!”
The contents of the dispatch were the same as those shipped to Italy. “It seems to me to be the same package that it was for Italy, and it requires our full gratitude to Russia because it shows how much they care about Serbia when it is not easy for them either”, Vucic said. Russian effort backfired when public reports emerged that help sent to Italy was not really useful, with its equipment designed for chemical attacks and not viral outbreaks. One can presume that the delivery to Serbia also turned out to be more of a symbolic act.
Russia is not the only country taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes. China has also been very public with its relief efforts, sending help internationally. On March 21, 2020, for example, a Chinese medical team arrived in Serbia to join the fight against the virus. They brought six medical professionals, ventilators, medical masks, test kits and other medical supplies. China has also provided financial support to Serbia for building test labs and other medical facilities. Two labs, – one in Belgrade and one in Nis, are expected to be ready by mid-April.
For the Serbian government, Russian and Chinese help is useful both, economically and politically. Dimitar Bechev, Director of the European Policy Institute, feels that the Serbian government is leveraging Russian and Chinese attention to advance its own standing within the EU. Alarmed by the prospect of Serbia falling under the influence of these authoritarian regimes, the EU may feel the urge to prioritize Serbia in exchange for its loyalty to the “European family”.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the March coronavirus aid dispatch from China, the European Union announced a 93 million euros worth of support to Serbia. Even after this announcement, President Vucic continued his negotiations with Emanuel Macron for additional help from France.
Located midway from Asia to Europe, Serbia is strategic locale for both Russia and China. By becoming a part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, Serbia has secured over $4 billion in direct investments from China and another $5 billion through loans and infrastructure projects. Serbia and China have also moved to deepen their security cooperation and have agreed on a technological partnership with a Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Russian influence is historically strong in Serbia. Russia dominates the Serbian energy sector and seeks tirelessly to strengthen its position in the region even more. 80% of natural gas and 70% of crude oil imported to Serbia comes from Russia. Gazprom owns 56.15% of NIS, the largest oil and gas company in Serbia. One of the legs of the TurkStream pipeline is planned to go through Serbian territory.
Sustaining political support among Serbian authorities is of critical importance to the Kremlin, which sees it as a zero-sum game. Seeking to preserve this support, the Kremlin attempts to retard and derail the Serbian integration into the EU and minimize the NATO influence on the country. Russia works to deepen its bilateral military relations through joint training and military sales to the Serbian Army; it is aggressive in its support for pro-Russian politicians and disinformation campaigns. Media outlets financed by pro-Kremlin forces spreads narratives advancing the Russian government agenda and undermining trust in the European Union and support of its values.
For the time being, Serbia shrewdly takes full advantage of this international contest for influence by accepting benefits from all three sides – Russia, China and the EU – and by praising Putin, preparing for joining the EU and letting Chinese investments flow in.