If Serbia now praises China to the heavens, it may be because Belgrade has judged that the West now takes China much more seriously than Russia.
By Vuk Velebit*
The coronavirus epidemic might have spread from China thanks to the irresponsibility of its political elites and its cover-up of the whole case, but the health crisis has not prevented the rise of a new “steel” friendship between China and Serbia.
Belgrade was one of the first countries in Europe to receive Chinese aid and expertise over the pandemic, and this cooperation has continued to deepen.
As the Serbian authorities have control over all TV stations with a national frequency and over all daily newspapers except once, Danas, it is easy for them to create a new narrative and manipulate information.
Almost overnight, China became the greatest friend of Serbia and was presented as its lifeguard during the pandemic crisis.
The European Union has been correspondingly marginalized, and its role minimized, even though the EU has probably sent far more aid than China.
We say “probably” because the aid that Serbia has received from China has been kept secret, so Serbia’s citizens will never know how much of it was real, and how much was just equipment that Serbia bought, and told the public was a donation.
In this case, the interests of the Presidents of Serbia and China have overlapped. Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic has shown the domestic public that Serbia has a friend among the world’s greatest powers and is strengthening his position in the West, while the Chinese President is improving China’s image in the world by presenting itself as a humanitarian force – instead of the country from which the virus originated.
However, what is especially interesting when it comes to Serbia’s attitude towards the great powers, and especially towards those who favour it, is how Russia has been forgotten as the Serbs’ greatest friend.
Vucic has understood that the West takes China much more seriously than Russia, so strategically this may be a good move for him if he plans on raising his price at an international level.
The way the Serbian tabloids and state officials once treated Russia, praising it to the heavens, is the same way they now treat China, which has replaced Russia in that role.
The precondition for such treatment is China’s support for Serbia on the issue of Kosovo, but much more tangible material cooperation exists between Serbia and China than was ever the case with Russia.
Although the value of Chinese investments in Serbia has increased, the number of loans that Serbia has taken out, which will have to be repaid under very unfavorable conditions, is also increasing. This is not a problem for the ruling elites in the short term, but it will become an issue when the loan repayments fall due.
Over the last few months, China has been the most visible country in Serbia’s foreign policy. From an economic point of view, China is good for Vucic to promote because he can present himself as the person who enabled the inflow of Chinese capital into Serbia.
There also has been a change in Serbia’s foreign policy, with the ruling elites no longer hesitating to support China on sensitive issues, like Beijing’s relations with Hong Kong.
The President of Serbia went further and sent a letter supporting China’s moves to preserve its sovereignty and security. Although this support does not mean much to China, it does help it, as it brands itself a great world power.
If we were to analyze China’s interest in giving Serbia such disproportionate attention in relation to the rest of Europe, Serbia represents an open door for China to the rest of Europe.
As a candidate country for EU membership, Serbia is in a unique position because certain rules do not apply to it as they do to Member States, while it also has access to the European market. Serbia’s position allows China to test and see how far it can penetrate European markets.
Although China is more economically visible in Serbia today thanks to the attention it has received in the pro-regime media, most people still want to adopt the Western model.
As a result, it will continue to be difficult for China to exercise cultural influence, or “soft” power. But the construction of a Chinese cultural centre, the largest in this part of Europe, is now underway in Belgrade, which confirms its commitment to seeing Serbia as a bridgehead to Europe. At the moment, China’s approach and its openness to Serbia suits Serbia’s ruling party, but in the future it will pay a price for the policy of sitting on several chairs.
The help that has come from China – new infrastructure projects and factories in Serbia – were part of Vucic’s campaign for the recent parliamentary elections. During the last month, there were few days when Serbs could not read in the news that state officials and the Chinese ambassador had visited some of the infrastructure projects or factories.
If foreign investments are the most important part of Vucic’s policy of maintaining economic and social stability, China is certainly high on the list of priorities. Vucic’s message to foreign investors might well be: “If you want visibility in the Serbian media, it is best to invest in Serbia before elections.”
The European Union and Western countries have been the largest foreign donors and investors in Serbia for the last 20 years, but the citizens of Serbia have never been told these facts and given real data about that aid.
Instead, the authorities always represented Russia as Serbia’s greatest friend, and citizens always cited Russia as the largest donor in opinion polls.
During the epidemic, this situation has changed, so today the citizens of Serbia think that China is the country’s biggest donor and investor. According to the Institute for European Affairs, today 40 per cent of Serbian citizens consider China their largest donor, followed by the EU at 17.6 per cent and Russia at 14.6 per cent.
These data confirm that the government has the greatest power and responsibility for creating public opinion and shaping the attitudes of citizens. No government in Serbia has tried to create a positive narrative towards the West which is in fact the largest donor and investor.
In a recent interview with Radio Free Europe, the President of Serbia said the EU was Serbia’s largest donor and investor, despite the help that arrived from China, but the President would never say that on a television station with a national frequency.
Instead, the West is always presented in Serbia as something bad, as a force that has taken Kosovo away and is hindering Serbian progress – while Russia and China are always presented as the protectors of Serbia and its interests.
*Vuk Velebit is a Serbian foreign policy analyst with focus on relations between Russia, Western Balkans, and West.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
This article was written as part of the regional program “Western Balkans: Understanding and Preventing Anti-Western Influence,” implemented by the International Republican Institute in Sarajevo. The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of IRI.