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In The Balkans' Most Divided Country, COVID Vaccine Cuts Both Ways

Women wearing face masks walk on the street in Sarajevo last month. By December 11, there were 99,543 confirmed infections and 3,250 COVID-19 deaths in the country of 3.4 million..

From its rotating, three-member presidency based on ethnicity to the parallel executive and legislative councils that alternately coax it forward and impede it, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a deeply divided country.

So much so that most of the talk around this month's 25th anniversary of the deal that ended its ethnically-driven war in the 1990s and preserved Bosnian statehood centered on why that stopgap agreement was still so essential to its survival.

Now, as the former Yugoslav republic battles a devastating resurgence of COVID-19 along with its Balkan neighbors, it has found one more fault line.

The two constituent parts of Bosnia, the Muslim and Croat federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska that it bifurcates in the east, have so far chosen very different suppliers for the vaccines that they hope will put the brakes on their current coronavirus skid.

One is already expediting work to procure a hastily registered Russian vaccine, dubbed Sputnik-V, while the other has placed its hopes in the GAVI international vaccine alliance that some 185 countries are also counting on for pandemic relief.

"I can't decide which vaccine to take," says Svetlana Petrovic, who's from a town near the administrative line in northern Bosnia separating Republika Srpska from the Bosniak-Croat federation, adding, "It will depend on the authorities."

Whose Decision Is It, Anyways?

Petrovic's hometown, Doboj, is technically in Republika Srpska, whose representatives to Russia announced in August they were pursuing 1 million doses of the controversial Sputnik-V vaccine once it was certified.

Russia began mass vaccinating its own citizens with the homegrown serum earlier this month, despite international concerns about its safety in the absence of Phase 3 clinical trials before it was registered in August, and is already exporting it for testing abroad.

Dusko Perovic, a Republika Srpska envoy to Moscow, told the Srna news agency that Banja Luka expected its first delivery of Sputnik-V in February.

Just last week, however, Republika Srpska's Health Ministry told RFE/RL's Balkan Service it was "currently not possible to determine which vaccine will be available in Republika Srpska." It said its representatives in Russia were "considering...the possibility of procuring vaccines from a Russian manufacturer."

They also said they had ordered 400,000 doses of vaccine for 200,000 inhabitants under the COVAX mechanism that's being led by the GAVI vaccine alliance, which aims to spread risk and pool procurement for reliable vaccines currently being tested or rolled out around the world.

Officials in the other Bosnian entity, the Muslim-Croat federation, have signed an agreement with GAVI to procure 1.2 million doses of a vaccine. They have not ordered the Sputnik-V vaccine.

The last census, conducted in 2013, showed around 1.2 million residents in Republika Srpska and around 2.2 million in the Muslim-Croat federation, suggesting it would take some 6.8 million doses to cover Bosnia's entire population.

By December 11, there were 99,543 confirmed infections in Bosnia and 3,250 COVID-19 deaths.

"I generally think we should get a vaccine to stop this disease somehow," Petrovic says. But a surprising proportion of her compatriots appear to disagree.

A large segment of them -- like a disproportionately high number of their fellow Balkan residents -- don't want to get vaccinated and distrust the science and media coverage encouraging hope in a vaccine to solve the problem.

Mistrust Is High

A new policy study on the Western Balkans found that not only is resistance high to vaccination in Bosnia and four other former Yugoslav republics -- along with Albania -- but there is a startling acceptance of under- or misinformed conspiracy theories about COVID-19 in general.

A medical worker shows a vial with Sputnik-V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine on December 3.
A medical worker shows a vial with Sputnik-V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine on December 3.

"There is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and skepticism towards vaccination," the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) study, released this month, warned. "A majority across the region does not plan to take the vaccine, a ratio considerably lower than elsewhere in Europe, where a majority favors taking the vaccine."

In all but one of the six countries, Montenegro, where around 45 percent would "certainly or probably take the vaccine," BiEPAG said, "a majority rejects vaccination, with more than one-third being in the 'firm' camp."

The visibility of conspiracy theories on COVID-19 and its origins are "strikingly high in the Western Balkans," the authors found, and "between a quarter and half of the population subscribe to at least one" of the conspiracy theories the researchers looked at.

The BIEPAG study focused in particular on conspiracy theories that are in circulation not just in the Balkans but around the world and are significantly shared on social media.

They include the ideas that: the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus in a lab; that the pharmaceutical industry is implicated in COVID-19's spread; that there is a link between 5G telecommunications technology and the virus; that the U.S. military developed the new coronavirus as a bioweapon; that Microsoft billionaire and anti-polio philanthropist Bill Gates is trying to embed a microchip in people to track vaccines; and that the coronavirus leaked out of a Wuhan, China, laboratory.

A region like the Balkans -- eponymous with divisions across mutually hostile entities and rife with mistrust stemming from a decade of war in the 1990s and creeping authoritarianism in some places since then -- might also be especially fertile ground for false theories to discredit a vaccine.

More recently, the region has become a hotbed of anonymous, online disinformation activities directed locally and internationally. And state-dominated media routinely drive politically motivated narratives that erode trust in the media and other institutions.

Grasping at conspiratorial straws is grounded, in part, in "a powerful drive for causal understanding" that is "filling a gap caused by doubt and division among experts" in the current pandemic, University of Birmingham philosophy professor Lisa Bortolotti, who writes on delusions and irrational beliefs and runs the Imperfect Cognitions blog, wrote recently. A distrust of institutions also encourages the rejection of evidence, she said.

Conspiracy theories tend to arise within what she calls "epistemic bubbles," or audience groups that deliberately exclude opposing voices. "The epistemic bubbles are made less flexible by distrust towards 'official' sources of information, such as the media or the government," Bortolotti told RFE/RL.

"So in a society where freedom of expression is under question and the media are not fully independent, people may not defer to the authorities or the expert opinion, but try and come up with their own explanations, that is, explanations that fit with their existing ideological or political convictions and that are shared by others in their groups."

Still, many of the respondents to a random polling of Bosnians by RFE/RL's Balkan Service said they would take a vaccine whenever it becomes available. "I'd definitely get vaccinated," said Meho, who is from Cazin, in northwestern Bosnia, part of the Muslim-Croat federation, and did not want to give his last name. "When the world is getting vaccinated, why not us?"

Practical Questions, Too

The Dayton agreement that preserved Bosnia's statehood and saved countless lives by ending bitter fighting between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs turns 25 years old this week. But its ethnically based divisions and decentralization remain both Bosnia's organizing principle and its Achilles' heel.

Peace, But No Prosperity: Bosnia Marks 25 Years Since Dayton Accords
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The constitution hammered together with U.S. mediators in 1995 divided up much of the power and authority normally vested in a central government.

As a result, Bosnia has no state-level health authority. Instead, the Bosniak-Croat federation, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and the more ethnically mixed Brcko district that comprise Bosnia each have jurisdiction over their own health-care decisions.

Bosnia faces addition challenges from endemic corruption, underscored by the spectacular failure of a $5.8 million contract to acquire lifesaving Chinese ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients via a raspberry-farming business.

That case recently resulted in multiple indictments handed down by state prosecutors, including against federation Prime Minister Fadil Novalic.

A medical worker measures the body temperature of people arriving for coronavirus testing at a hospital in Sarajevo.
A medical worker measures the body temperature of people arriving for coronavirus testing at a hospital in Sarajevo.

Officials in Republika Srpska routinely take their cues from officials in neighboring Serbia, and many of its residents closely follow Serbian television and other news from across the border. Serbia's government has reportedly agreed to purchase enough of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for 900,000 people and is negotiating possible purchases from China and Russia.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has stressed that he's not looking for guidance from the West, and Belgrade has already taken delivery of a small, pilot batch of Russia's Sputnik-V vaccine for testing. A close Moscow ally, Vucic has volunteered to be the first Serbian in line for Sputnik-V once his country's regulators are convinced it's safe. It is a so-called two-vector vaccine that was developed at Moscow's Gamaleya Research Institute.

"I would choose Sputnik," says Petrovic, from Doboj in Republika Srpska. "It's more natural, from what I hear from doctors, if it was made in a natural way, like previous vaccines."

Written and reported by Andy Heil with reporting by Gojko Veselinovic and Lejla Omeragic Catic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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    Gojko Veselinovic

    Gojko Veselinovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Lejla Omeragic-Catic

    Lejla Omeragic-Catic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.