Paul Antonopoulos, independent geopolitical analyst
Serbia donated thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro and North Macedonia. Will this gesture change how Serbia is perceived by its neighbors and warm its relations with Sarajevo, Podgorica and Skopje?
By helping in the fight against the COVID-19 virus, Belgrade hopes it can have more cordial and calm relations with its neighbors. However, this is unlikely to contribute to the change of perception that Serbia hopes for on a wider scale, especially among the Muslim Bosnians and Croats of BiH, as well as many Montenegrins and the Albanians of North Macedonia. The reality is that a single humanitarian act by Belgrade cannot contribute to a huge change in perception on a general level. This is despite Serbia attempting to portray itself as the top country of the former Yugoslavia and a leader in a transforming region.
Serbia is doing everything to convince its neighbors of its goodwill, that it has no pretensions. Belgrade wants to show by example how there are mutual benefits through cooperation. In that sense, donating COVID-19 vaccines is a message of good will and cooperation, as well as demonstration by example that Serbia stands behind its word. This gesture may help the image of Serbia with ordinary citizens of BiH, Montenegro and North Macedonia, but we should not forget that there are many who simply do not want positive relations with Belgrade and try to maintain a policy of confrontation.
It is likely that Montenegro and BiH will try and minimize the significance of Serbia’s donation of COVID-19 vaccines, while North Macedonia will be somewhat more appreciative. Of its three neighbors, Belgrade’s relations are strongest with Skopje, however, Serbia’s southern neighbor joined NATO only last year and has a huge Albanian minority that is gaining more political power. By joining NATO, North Macedonia voluntarily joined an organization that does not hide away its aims of continued pressure and targeting of Russia.
On the question of whether Belgrade’s actions will lead to good neighborly gestures and improved relations with Sarajevo, Podgorica and/or Skopje, hope should always exist and Serbia will be anticipating its move was not in vain. It must be recalled though that Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović said on Twitter on March 25, 2020: “A great decision for our neighbours North Macedonia and Albania. Today - support to Montenegro in fighting COVID-19! EU keeps standing with Western Balkans in the hard times!” The official Twitter account of the Montenegrin Government went to Twitter on the same day to say: “The EU, in the difficult moments of fighting against coronavirus, stands by Montenegro and provides urgent help for procurement of equipment and protective supplies worth €3 mil through the UN system while working on defining the model for an additional €50 million to help overcome the socio-economic effects of the crisis.” Although Montenegro was full of praise for the European Union for assisting the country against the COVID-19 pandemic, Podgorica has made no public announcement of appreciation towards Serbia for the vaccines they have donated.
North Macedonia, BiH and Montenegro carry out Washington’s and Brussels’ agenda and serve as willing agents to limit Russian influence in a region that is overwhelmingly Slavic and Christian Orthodox. It is for these reasons that Montenegro and North Macedonia were not only fast-tracked into NATO, but are being accelerated into the European Union.
Although BiH is neither a NATO or EU member, it serves as the largest U.S. military base in the Balkans, and the complex structure keeping the country together is only maintained because of foreign intervention. BiH will likely be split over Belgrade’s donation, with the Bosnian Muslim and Croat communities sidelining the significance of COVID-19 vaccine donations, while the Serbs will acknowledge and appreciate this.
Anti-Serbian sentiment is still being pushed by the ruling class in Podgorica, the Bosnian Muslims and Croats of BiH and the Albanians in North Macedonia. These countries are signalling to the West that they will partner with Washington to pressure Serbia. Therefore, the accession of Montenegro and North Macedonia to the European Union and NATO is being used by the West as a mechanism to contain Serbia and halt Russian influence into the Balkans. It is for this reason that although Serbia may gain some support among the citizens of BiH, Montenegro and North Macedonia for donating COVID-19 vaccines, it is unlikely to change the economic and diplomatic relations that Belgrade has with these countries.
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