New Paradigm, Same Old Game. Vaccine Diplomacy in Eastern Europe and Beyond

What’s at stake? Vaccines and the future of democracy

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a new avenue for diplomacy. Countries that are able to produce and export vaccines can, in turn, increase their influence by reinforcing old alliances, creating new quid-pro-quo partnerships or by simply advertising their achievements and ideologies on the global stage. It should, therefore, be of no surprise that the distribution of the vaccines is currently following geopolitical lines.

Notwithstanding several controversies regarding efficacy and data transparency, China has enabled the use of its Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines in Indonesia, Cambodia, Pakistan, but it has also sought to increase its influence in South America, Africa and even in Europe by exporting to countries such as Montenegro and Hungary.  Russia has exported its Sputnik V shots to previous soviet countries, including Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but it has also exported and enabled the future production of its vaccine in South America, Africa and Central and even Europe.

European Union member states have initially agreed to a joint acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines to avoid putting together a tender that would outprice smaller countries. However, after the European Union was left behind by countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, member states started to seek external sources for vaccines – including China and Russia. This policy paper tries to show how China and Russia have attempted to gain influence in Europe, how the European Union has responded and how it could have responded to these challenges.

Highlights include:

(1)    China and Russia, unhindered by controversies regarding the efficacy of their vaccines, have exported Covid-19 shots to European countries, even when their own vaccination campaigns were left behind. Aiming to undermine the European Union and increase their influence, the two autocratic regimes have combined epidemiology with politics by spreading conspiracy theories from the very start of the pandemic. This may have backfired for Russia, since it now faces a vaccine hesitant population that may not wish to vaccinate itself.

(2)   The European Union, one of the largest Covid-19 vaccine exporters in the world, has been unfairly blamed for its slow vaccination strategy. The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that have been depicted as examples to follow, have been receiving vaccine shipments from the European Union and have only recently started to export vaccines of their own.  The European Union has also been criticized for having a slow regulatory process, even though the European Medicines Agency has approved more vaccines than any other Western regulator.

(3) Waiving patents may solve global inequalities. Third-world countries are severely behind in their vaccination campaigns, despite significant commitments to COVAX, a WHO-backed initiative that aims to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Western governments have been reluctant to pause intellectual property rights, but radical steps should now be considered in the attempt to reduce global inequalities.

These measures may also have geopolitical implications, since they might reduce reliance on Russian and Chinese exports. The European Union should therefore support the waiving of intellectual property rights, but it should also adopt a more proactive approach to vaccine development. However, as vaccination rates are slowing even in developed countries, vaccine passports and other similar measures should continue to be used as tools for encouraging vaccinations, provided they are implemented with a bottom-up approach and ethical dilemmas in mind.

The report also puts a special emphasis on several case studies in Central and Eastern Europe, the Black Sea Region and the Eastern Partnership countries                                                                           

(1) Romania and Bulgaria are still plagued by incompetence and corruption. Both countries have prioritized ‘essential’ workers to the detriment of the elderly and other vulnerable populations. Given their failure to communicate effectively, they are now facing high levels of vaccine adversity that risk undermining their vaccination campaign.

(2) The South Caucasus, the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans received scarce help from the European Union, leaving a vacuum that has enabled increased Russia, Chinese and even Turkish influence. COVAX also had a limited impact in the region, as the Pfizer doses offered to the South Caucasus countries are more difficult to store than other vaccines.

(3) Inside the Visegrad Four, Hungary was first inside the EU to approve and purchase multiple Chinese and Russian vaccines. This emboldened the other V4 members, but they had greater difficulties in approving the vaccines. The Czech Republic dismissed a Health Ministry over refusal to approve the Sputnik V vaccine, and the Slovak health regulators found insufficient data on the safety of the vaccine. In the future, the alliance and other international projects such as the Three Seas Initiative may face ideological conflicts over how to approach China and Russia.

The report can be accessed here

This report is part of the project Fostering cooperation in the Black Sea Region: Setting up a transnational civic situation room implemented by CRPE and financed by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation of the German Marshall Fund.

The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.