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'Illegal' Vaccines In Northern Kosovo Provide A Heavy Dose Of Cross-Border Politics

People in Leposavic wait in line to get the Pfizer vaccine on December 26.

MITROVICA, Kosovo -- Sretko Radenkovic was one of the first of Kosovo's 1.7 million people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 last weekend.

From the village of Srbovac, outside the divided northern city of Mitrovica near the border with Serbia, the 77-year-old says he kind of lucked out.

Radenkovic, an ethnic Serb, said he had heard from a neighbor late on December 25 about a chance to get inoculated against the pathogen that has so far infected 82 million people worldwide, killing nearly 1.8 million of them.

The next day, after hearing that three people had given up their spots, he was in line alongside dozens of others at the Zvecan Health Center, part of a shadow health system in the area run by Serbia for ethnic Serbs.

There were said to be 50 or 60 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine earmarked for elderly patients.

"I got the vaccine without hesitation," Radenkovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "It simply happened."

Under other circumstances, in a region plagued by anti-vaccination sentiment and disinformation, anyone's eagerness for a vaccine to protect them from the coronavirus might be welcomed.

But Radenkovic's discretion about how exactly he got his shot could be warranted.

Kosovo is not expected to get its first shipment of vaccines under the COVAX international distribution system for at least two months.

Even then, it is expected to receive only enough doses for around one-fifth of the country's residents.

So Kosovo's judicial authorities, faced with possibly hundreds of vaccinations in a handful of communities in the northern region bordering Serbia, want to know exactly who is vaccinating whom, with what, and on whose authority.

Simple Deduction

Regional prosecutors in Kosovo say they are collecting information for what could become criminal investigations that lead to prosecutions over the vaccine reports.

"If we have evidence that [vaccines] are indeed smuggled -- because use of these vaccines requires authorization -- and if they are illegal, criminal proceedings will be instituted against those who did these things," Shyqri Syla, the prosecutor in Mitrovica, told RFE/RL.

They might not need to look very far.

Unofficial reports suggest Zvecan was one of four northern Kosovar municipalities to have received about 50 doses of the Pfizer vaccine despite no authorization so far from Kosovar health and safety regulators.

The others were North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, and Leposavic.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced on December 25 that the vaccination of elderly residents in Lepasovic had begun and were imminent in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

"Let's protect them first and then the others," Vucic said of elderly Serbs at a press conference at a military airport outside the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where he was welcoming a shipment of medical equipment from the United Arab Emirates.

He has since said Serbia will continue to look after "its people in Kosovo."

Serbian authorities have not said whether they are continuing to vaccinate in Kosovo, a former province whose sovereignty Belgrade still rejects despite recognition from more than 115 countries.

But an official in Gracanica, a Serbian-majority community near the Kosovar capital, Pristina, suggested that the Serbian Health Ministry was preparing to send vaccinations to that area.

Mirjana Dimitrijevic, the director of a health facility in Gracanica, told RFE/RL that residents over the age of 65 were being surveyed to gauge interest in the Serbian vaccine.

"We expect that after submitting this data to the competent institutions, we will receive the invitation for supply and will start distributing vaccines," Dimitrejevic said.

Pristina Appeals For Consequences

In a Facebook post under the heading "Sanction Serbia's Violations," Kosovar Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla called it a "clandestine intervention" in her country's affairs and a "flagrant violation" of a 2015 agreement on rules governing the mutual recognition of pharmaceuticals.

"Serbia and its top officials, with [its] recent actions as well as with ongoing violations, has endangered Kosovo's state security and has therefore undermined the entire process and achievements of the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia in Washington, just as in Brussels," she said in reference to international efforts to mediate a path to normalcy between Pristina and Belgrade.

Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla (file photo)
Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla (file photo)

Kosovar's caretaker prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, noted on December 26 the reported distribution of vaccines to "citizens in the north of the country" and suggested any such medicines had "entered through illegal channels." He vowed that "Kosovo institutions will take the necessary legal measures against persons involved in this illegal activity such as drug smuggling."

Two days later -- just as the European Commission adopted a 70 million-euro ($86 million) package for early Western Balkan access to EU coronavirus vaccines -- Hoti suggested that EU Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi shared his "concerns" about the matter.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials in Pristina have said a vaccine under COVAX, the UN public-health agency's global distribution mechanism, is unlikely to arrive in Kosovo until the spring -- early April at the latest.

WHO experts say Kosovo currently lacks the technical infrastructure and trained medical staff needed to administer the vaccine.

Hoti also said Varhelyi had "assured" him that a vaccine "will arrive in Kosovo at the same time as in other Western Balkan countries."

When asked by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Kosovar Health Minister Armend Zemaj last week declined to say whether Pristina was negotiating for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Acting Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani on December 29 called vaccines already imported from Serbia a violation of agreements within the international normalization efforts but also suggested they bespoke "a lack of preparation on the part of our institutions."

Kosovars, including those in the north, should be "notified [as to] when they should expect vaccines from health institutions of Kosovo."

Vjosa Osmani (file photo)
Vjosa Osmani (file photo)

"I think we have delays that should not be justified," Osmani told reporters. "Other countries in the region are ahead of us, so we must and will demand responsibility from the government for why we are not prepared and it is expected that, in all likelihood, vaccines will arrive sometime after April."

She also said that in addition to any COVAX vaccines, Kosovo's government should be trying to obtain vaccines from other EU countries.

Political Preening?

Although the numbers are slippery, at least 100,000 or so of Kosovo's residents are ethnic Serbs, mostly in the north but also in scattered communities in the south.

Belgrade maintains a shadow health-care system in many of those regions.

Serbia, a regional economic power, led the area in kicking off its vaccination effort thanks to the arrival of nearly 5,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech serum on December 22.

Two days later, it became the third country in Europe to start inoculating with the Pfizer vaccine, after the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Its use everywhere but Switzerland has so far relied on emergency-use authorizations following extensive testing.

Serbia is currently testing the Russian-made Sputnik-V vaccine and has reportedly been negotiating for Sinopharm's Chinese vaccine.

While it is unclear if or when regulatory approval might come from Serbian laboratories, concerns about a lack of testing and transparency have dogged the Russian vaccine in particular.

Is Serbia's Vucic playing politics with vaccines?
Is Serbia's Vucic playing politics with vaccines?

Vucic, who burnished his ultranationalist credentials opposing Kosovo's bid for independence in the 1990s, cultivates strong formal and informal ties between Serbia's government and ethnic Serbian communities in Kosovo and other neighboring countries.

Arton Demhasaj, director of the Kosovo-based NGO Cohu!, a think tank that promotes democracy and anti-corruption efforts, said he believed Vucic's apparent vaccination politics in northern Kosovo were aimed at provoking Pristina.

"He now expects institutional reactions from Kosovo and then this will be used in the international arena as 'Lo and behold, even for a humanitarian intervention for Serb citizens in Kosovo, these are the reactions,'" Demhasaj told RFE/RL.

He suggested that even securing the vaccine so quickly -- even ahead of many EU countries -- was part of a deliberate political show on Vucic's part.

"First bring it to Kosovo and wait for the reaction of our institutions, and then use that politically," Demhasaj said. "I think this shouldn't have been allowed to happen."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Bekim Bislimi of RFE/RL's Balkan Service with contributions by Maja Ficovic from North Mitrovica and Sandra Cvetkovic from Gracanica
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    Bekim Bislimi

    Bekim Bislimi is a correspondent with 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.