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Ex-Envoy Bildt Questions Serbia, Hungary's Use Of 'China Card' Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (without mask) welcomes Chinese health experts and a planeload of medical supplies to Belgrade on March 21.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (without mask) welcomes Chinese health experts and a planeload of medical supplies to Belgrade on March 21.

BELGRADE -- Influential former UN and European envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt has unloaded a torrent of concern over Serbian political signals amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a far-ranging interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service on March 30, the former Swedish foreign minister acknowledged European failures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic but warned that Serbian leaders' reliance on "the China card" could prove "counterproductive from the Serbian point of view."

He has seen a similar "political pattern" in EU member Hungary, he said, whose government has sought to stifle criticism of Beijing since the Chinese government seemingly bungled containment efforts after the coronavirus moved from animals to humans in November (not December).

Bildt was asked about Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic's very public criticism of the EU when he said in a televised address on March 15 that "European solidarity" was just "a fairy tale," adding that only China "can help us in this difficult situation."

Carl Bildt
Carl Bildt

Bildt said he saw Serbia "playing the China card much stronger."

But he asked "What's the political strategy behind that? I don't understand it. I think it is counterproductive from the Serbian point of view."

Days later, with Beijing's conspicuous efforts to overshadow criticism of its steps early in the COVID-19 crisis gaining steam, Vucic welcomed a Chinese delegation and a planeload of medical equipment at the airport.

Bildt cited tens of millions of euros in immediate EU aid to help Serbia's health sector battle the pandemic, which had killed 31 of the 1,171 people there confirmed as infected with the coronavirus by April 2.

"These are very significant funds of support, far in excess of a couple of more symbolic things that have arrived from other countries," Bildt said. "If the reward for that is that the president thanks everyone else, complaining about Europe, then I think long-term the incentive for Europe to give support will decline."

Serbia is an EU candidate country, and the new European Commission government under President Ursula von der Leyen has signaled a new will for expansion that had waned under her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, amid disputes over immigration, budget priorities, and Brexit.

EU Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in February after meeting with Vucic that he wanted by 2024 "to have at least one country" from the Western Balkans be ready for EU membership.

And the Western Balkans received a boost last week when the European Council decided to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, signaling a return to enlargement once the current political storms blow past.

Holding A Grudge?

Belgrade's relations with the West have been complicated by a lingering dispute over the independence of Serbia's former province, Kosovo, weapons purchases and other aspects of Belgrade's relationship with Russia, and perceived backsliding on free media and democracy issues.

"I noted the fact that [the Serbian government] made the big splash, whatever, out of the fairly limited Chinese aid," Bildt said. "President Vucic was there at the airport, and I see they have posters up in Belgrade saying, 'Thank you to China,' while I haven’t seen any corresponding 'Thank you' for the far more substantial help [that came] from the European Union. And that, I think, has been noted throughout the [EU]."

The European Union has allocated at least 93 million euros ($102 million) in support for health care and social and economic recovery in Serbia, and hundreds of millions more in the other five of the so-called Western Balkans Six: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

Yet Serbia's government has gone to considerable lengths to publicly praise Beijing, including the aforementioned billboards.

Bildt called the actions by Belgrade officials "a very divergent reaction," adding that he failed "to see the political wisdom of it."

China has funneled loans and investment into the Balkans in an effort to boost its own influence, much of it bound for regional economic leader Serbia.

The value of its support for Serbia related to the pandemic is unknown, but it appears to have been limited to Chinese medical materiel including ventilators, drugs and medicines, protective masks and gloves, and a visit from a six-member team of public-health advisers.

Bildt at one point tweeted what he suggested to RFE/RL were double standards by Serbian officials regarding aid from the EU and help from China.

Serbia's prime minister, Ana Brnabic, tweeted back, accusing Bildt of "spreading fake news to send strong political messages." She further chided Bildt at a joint press conference where she and Vucic repeated the "fake news" allegation.

'Propaganda Exercise'

Bildt suggested to RFE/RL that the European Union had made mistakes in its coronavirus response but said it had not spread the word enough about its own aid efforts.

"We have seen that, I think, the Chinese have been hurt by the fact that it all started with them and they [made] significant mistakes in the beginning trying to cover up," Bildt said. "And now they are trying to do a sort of a goodwill exercise with sending flights and whatever to different countries in order to make good, to a certain extent."

He added that "all help should be welcome, but there is undoubtedly an element of...[a propaganda exercise] going on."

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Wulin (center, left) and Chinese Ambassador Chen Bo commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of Chinese journalists killed in the 1999 during the NATO bombing in Belgrade on March 27.
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Wulin (center, left) and Chinese Ambassador Chen Bo commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of Chinese journalists killed in the 1999 during the NATO bombing in Belgrade on March 27.

Bildt said he had seen a similar scenario play out in Hungary, where entrenched Prime Minister Viktor Orban has courted closer relations with Moscow and Beijing amid EU-wide concern at his nationalism-fueled populism and restrictions on media and the opposition.

"It's early days -- but I think there is a tendency towards a political pattern here," Bildt said. "Hungary has been very supportive of China in every single respect -- we've seen the Hungarians blocking statements inside the European Union that have been critical of China, the human rights record and things like that, and also on the South China Sea. So Hungary has been acting as a close ally of China within the European Union. And it might be that this is some sort of reward."

Bildt was the EU's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia and co-chaired the Dayton Peace Conference in 1995. He also served as the international community's high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995-97 and as the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the Balkans in 1999-2001. He was Swedish prime minister in 1991-94 and foreign minister in 2006-14.

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    Nevena Bogdanovic

    Nevena Bogdanovic is a correspondent based in Belgrade 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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