BELGRADE — Stained for years by its brutal role in the horrific Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Serbia is now basking in the glow of success in a good war: the battle to get its people vaccinated.
Serbia has raced ahead of the far richer and usually better-organized countries in Europe to offer all adult citizens not only free inoculations but a smorgasbord of five different vaccines to choose from.
By contrast, the European Union has stumbled badly in providing shots, with a disjointed procurement and distribution strategy that bet big on the AstraZeneca vaccine. That strategy hit a roadblock this week after key members of the bloc, including Germany and France, suspended inoculations with the vaccine over concerns it might increase the risk of blood clots, compounding delivery problems that stemmed from a production shortfall the company announced in January.
Serbia’s unusual surfeit of vaccines has been a public relations triumph for the increasingly authoritarian government of President Aleksandar Vucic. It has burnished his own as well as his country’s image, weakened his already beleaguered opponents and added a new twist to the complex geopolitics of vaccines.
“You will one day erect a monument to me!” Mr. Vucic predicted last month, boasting that he had secured low-priced supplies of Chinese vaccines by appealing personally to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for help.
Instead of tilting either East or West in an effort to secure supplies, Serbia, with a population under 7 million, placed bets across the board, sealing initial deals for more than 11 million doses with Russia and China, whose products have not been approved by European regulators, as well as with Western drug companies.
It reached its first vaccine deal, covering 2.2 million doses, with Pfizer in August and quickly followed up with contracts for millions more from Russia and China. How much it paid is a secret but, Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar said in an interview, the prices were “much better than anyone else in the world got.”
Opposition politicians doubt this and wonder if the secrecy is a cover for corruption. But even Mr. Vucic’s most vocal critic, the leader of the biggest opposition party, Dragan Djilas, conceded: “He did a good job getting vaccines.” Mr. Djilas got injected last month with Sputnik V from Russia.
As a result of its plentiful supplies, Serbia has become the best vaccinator in Europe after Britain, data collected by OurWorldInData shows. It has administered 29.5 doses for every 100 people as of last week compared with just 10.5 in Germany, a country long viewed in this part of the world as a model of efficiency and good governance, and 10.7 in France.
Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, attributed her country’s success to its decision to “treat this as a health issue, not a political issue. We negotiated with all, regardless of whether East or West.”
In an interview she said Serbia, which applied to join the European Union more than a decade ago, still wants to join the bloc but added that “regulations in the E.U. are very strict. In pandemic times we need to be more flexible.”
The European Medicines Agency, which…