As coronavirus cases rise in the region, several countries are yet to begin vaccinations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina received 10,000 vaccines from neighbouring Serbia amid a dispute with the international COVAX mechanism over a delay in planned shipments.
The Balkan nation has threatened to sue the programme unless the vaccines arrive as agreed. It has asked for 1.2 million vaccines that would cover about one-third of its population.
Members of the multi-ethnic Bosnia presidency on Tuesday discussed the delivery problems with World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Bosnia will sign what it described as “additional” documentation requested by vaccine producers, a statement issued after the video conference said. It added that Bosnia has met the conditions for the arrival and storage of the jabs.
Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, flew to Bosnian capital Sarajevo to deliver the AstraZeneca vaccines to authorities there. The delivery is enough for 5,000 people to receive both required doses.
Vucic described the move as an act of solidarity and urged closer cooperation among the Balkan countries.
“We have expected vaccines from the EU [European Union]; we didn’t get them,” Vucic said. “We will thank them when we receive vaccines from the COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility] programme.”
Serbia launched its vaccination programme in January, mainly with China’s Sinopharm and to a lesser extent with Pfizer-BioNTech, Russia’s Sputnik V, and as of recently AstraZeneca.
Displaying a regional sway, Serbia has donated vaccines to neighbouring nations Montenegro and North Macedonia that are still waiting for shipments.
“President Vucic made us an offer at the moment when international mechanisms failed and we accepted it,” said Sefik Dzaferovic, the Bosniak member of the multi-ethnic Bosnian presidency.
Croat member of the presidency Zeljko Komsic added that “if even one of these 5,000 vaccines saves a life, then it’s worth it”.
But Bosnia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bisera Turkovic expressed reservations, telling local news outlets the vaccines donated by Serbia were produced in India, as written in the agreement, and these vaccines still do not have approval for use in the EU or US.
Turkovic said the EU surely has a valid reason for not approving them and had asked for the vaccine not be used until it gets approval from Bosnia’s drug agency.
“It’s a very cheap and readily available vaccine and has no license for use in the EU. That’s why my condition was that it’s checked at our agency,” Turkovic said.
“I would appreciate it more if [Serbia] signed a border agreement [with Bosnia] or if Serbia qualified war crimes [committed] in Bosnia as the courts have ruled. This is about a need for affirmation and even domination for Serbia in the region, and even about raising Serbia’s popularity.”
Responding to objections, Vucic at a press conference at Sarajevo’s airport on Tuesday said whatever vaccines citizens are looking for, “we will deliver it”.
“I came to say: these are vaccines for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since I see that some have objections – whatever vaccine you want, ask for, we will deliver them. We have now ordered Moderna, so we will have five vaccines,” Vucic said.
Relations with Serbia have remained a sensitive issue in Bosnia since the 1992-95 war, when Belgrade backed a bid by Bosnia’s Serbs to form their own mini-state and unite with Serbia.
The war erupted after the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation. It claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people before ending in a United States-brokered deal, which created two entities with a joint Bosnian government.
Vucic, a former extreme nationalist who supported the Bosnian Serb war effort during the conflict, said he has proposed a Serbia-Bosnia summit to be held in the coming months in Belgrade to widen economic and other cooperation.
“We can move forward much faster together,” he said. “We are stronger when we speak with one voice.”
Both Bosnia and Serbia have been seeking EU membership. Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs have also forged close relations with Russia and China.
The Serb-run Republika Srpska entity has acquired Russian Sputnik V vaccines, and hundreds of medical staff have crossed over to Serbia to receive vaccine shots.
The nationalist Bosnian Serb leadership has called for the separation of their entity from Bosnia while issues such as border identification or property division are still burdening relations with Belgrade.
“We must start relaxing our relations at some point,” Dzaferovic said. “There have been enough tensions and futile disputes.”
With more than 600,000 coronavirus vaccines used, Serbia is the leading country in the region and among the leading countries in Europe in the number of vaccinated citizens.