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Strahinja Subotić, researcher at the European Policy Centre - CEP

Zero-Sum Game And Covid-19

The now famous statement of the president of Serbia that European solidarity is just “a fairy tale on paper” has caused a shift of gears in the geopolitical competition. In this game, as China grows, so the eu loses, but also Russia.

A zero-sum game is most often defined as a situation in which the gani of one player corresponds to the loss of another or other players. In the context of geopolitics and Serbia, this game has increased in intensity since Serbian decision-makers imposed the state of emergency as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They then revealed their cards when it comes to their cooperation with external actors. It was the pandemic in particular that revealed that this is actually a situation in which one player cannot win without the other simultaneously losing. So, in this game, as China grows, so the EU loses, but also Russia.

Specifically, the now famous statement of the President of Serbia that European solidarity is just “a fairy tale on paper” has caused a shift of gears in the geopolitical competition. In this context, China has emerged as the main winner and the EU is the main loser. On the one hand, this showed that distant China is actually very close, because it showed a readiness to increase its presence and an ability to project its influence in Serbia. On the other hand, if times of crisis show who can be trusted, the European Union then certainly gleaned that Serbia is not a credible partner, especially considering that its president kissed the Chinese flag during the reception of medical care from a country that’s characterised by the EU as a “systemic rival”. This is also recognised by the European Commission in its report on Serbia that was published in October 2020, in which it points out that during the time of the pandemic Serbia has had rhetoric that’s distinctly pro-Chinese and simultaneously Eurosceptic.

In realising that Serbia views the European perspective through the prism of transactions, and not through a pattern of values, the EU attempted to increase its geopolitical engagement and media visibility by announcing a stronger influx of investment. The key measures adopted by the EU in order to increase its level of influence are the financial assistance package of €3.3 billion for the Western Balkans in response to the pandemic, as well as the €9 billion Economic Investment Plan (in the period from 2021 to 2027). Regardless of that, for now the extent to which this will succeed in restoring the shaken position of the EU remains questionable, considering that none of that deserved the significant attention of Serbian officials and the media. In contrast to that, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s confirmation of his visit to Serbia means that Serbian-Chinese relations are only expected to continue growing.

The pandemic revealed that europeanism in Serbia is just a thoughtful noun and that the EU will remain a geopolitical loser without more active engagement

However, geopolitical competition during the time of the pandemic didn’t only damage the image of the EU, but also the interests of Russia. Although it has long been considered that China and Russia can develop their influence in Serbia in parallel – Russia in terms of soft power and China in the economic domain – the pandemic showed that Russia is no longer the “favourite” foreign partner of Serbia’s decision makers. In other words, by shaping the official public discourse with the idea of “fraternity” with China, the president of China, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people, while at the same time pushing Russian medical aid to background, Serbian officials made it clear to Russia that it no longer enjoys the same degree of importance as was the case during the past decade. Moreover, this also represents an attempt to reshape Serbian public opinion, in which Russia has traditionally enjoyed very high support, while China has generally lagged behind. Surveys show that this strategy has borne fruit.

Namely, the survey that was published by the Institute for European Affairs in March 2020 shows that a majority believe China is the largest donor to Serbia, with that number having doubled compared to the same survey conducted a year prior. In the same poll, the number of those wConsidering all of theseho view Russia as thel argest donor fell by ten percentage points. Additionally, a survey published by the Faculty of Political Science in May 2020 shows that, when it comes to the impact of international aid on fighting the virus, most respondents believe that Chinese medical care is of the utmost importance, placing Russia in second place. The same research shows that the number of respondents who believe that Serbian foreign policy should be more closely liked to China than Russia also rose by a few percentage points. Although Russia still has significant capital in Serbia, as a result of a high level of soft power, these statistics indicate that even Russia won’t be able to continue to acting towards Serbia in auto-pilot mode.

Considering all of these changes, which happened in a relatively short period, it is important to point out that the pandemic itself didn’t lead to a change in the geopolitical balance of power; it only revealed, or actually accelerated, what was already happening on the ground. Serbian-Chinese cooperation has been on the rise since 2009, when a strategic partnership was signed between the two countries, and it has produced the economic benefits that Serbian officials had been hoping it would. In contrast to this, the issue of Kosovo’s unresolved status remains a key determinant in Serbian-Russian relations. In that light, the more Belgrade shows a willingness to compromise on dialogue with Priština, the more murmurings there will be in relations with Moscow, especially bearing in mind that this issue is a key source of its blackmailing capital. Finally, the pandemic also revealed that Europeanism in Serbia is just a thoughtful noun and that the EU wlil remain a geopolitical loser without more active engagement.

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