One of the unsettling aspects of this dramatic third wave of the pandemic in Europe is that the most illiberal, repressive and corrupt regimes show – for the moment – the best results in vaccinations. L’Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presents the highest coverage in the European Union, at 27% of the population according to Our World in Data. There Serbia of President Aleksandar Vučić can boast the highest in continental Europe, at 34.1%. Opaque and authoritarian systems can always manipulate information to look better, but this is likely not the case here. The data looks real. The vaccination campaign of two systems dominated by autocratic leaders and a small group of loyalists, in large oligarchs and kleptocrats of various kinds, is really proceeding faster. In proportion, Italy, France or Germany covered just over half of the population compared to Hungary and less than half compared to Serbia.
Free vaccinations for tourists in Serbia
The Belgrade government seems so sure of itself that, since last weekend, it has launched a public relations operation designed to revive tourism: it offers immediate and free vaccinations to any foreigner present at the health centers of Serbia. Long queues have formed on the borders with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia, with entire families willing to spend a holiday in Serbia in order to be safe from Covid-19. Albawings, a small low-cost airline from Tirana that commutes to Italy, suddenly organized repeated charters last weekend for rapid return flights with Belgrade.
Sputnik V is Sinopharm prima dei test
It is not the nature of the political system that guarantees this apparent efficiency of the autocrats. These are some choices that the other countries of the continent and most of their populations, almost everywhere, would not accept: Orbán and Vučić acquired and administered Sputnik V and Sinopharm before having any solid information on their efficacy and safety. The two leaders show their populations, impoverished and traumatized by the pandemic, that submitting to the tutelage of the Moscow and Beijing regimes has been useful. Yet even today the Russian vaccine is still not authorized by Western drug agencies, while the main Chinese vaccine even lacks preliminary studies that can be consulted in the rest of the world. In the meantime, however, Orbán had it administered. And Vučić kissed the Chinese flag, welcoming a small team of doctors sent from Beijing to Belgrade.
The problem of doses
This is an impossible model that can be replicated in the rest of Europe. It would be so even if in the future the European Medicines Agency were to recommend the use of Sputnik V and more were to be discovered about Sinopharm, which has not yet applied for authorization in Europe. Indeed, the Russian vaccine is able to have a certain impact in relatively small countries such as Hungary (less than ten million inhabitants) or Serbia (less than seven million). Not in the European Union as a whole or in its larger countries. There simply aren’t enough doses of Sputnik V to make a difference.
divide and rule
As Fabrizio Dragosei observes on the Courier service, Russia does not have the bioreactors and industrial capabilities necessary to produce its own vaccine; an important part of the manufacturing has been relocated to India, which, however, has recently closed the borders to export doses until it has protected at least one fifth of its population of 1.4 billion inhabitants. As for Sinopharm and other Chinese vaccines, it remains impossible to use them in democratic countries without having any certainty about the consequences of administration. Therefore Serbia and Hungary are not a model. Not even on vaccines. Yet the public relations operation carried out by Beijing and Moscow remains powerful. It is the ancient game of “divide et impera”, played on the ground and on the borders of the European Union. The message – for those who want to believe it – is that submission to Russia and China brings protection and security. Especially for illiberal regimes and their leaders.
March 31, 2021 (change March 31, 2021 | 16:34)