Around two months ago, a banner that read “Chinese and Serbs – brothers forever” was strung through a public park between Serbia’s presidential palace and Parliament in Belgrade. The message joined those on the pro-Chinese billboards that proliferated in the city during the peak of the pandemic, after President Aleksandar Vucic staged a lavish welcoming ceremony for Chinese medical aid at which he slammed the European Union.
The banner stood out not only for its remarkable location, but because it captured the core nature of Serbia’s pro-Chinese propaganda. Overnight, it had replaced a banner called “The Wall of Tears”, which featured resounding anti-NATO messages alongside images of Serbian casualties from the Kosovo war. NATO, Kosovo, and China are all issues on which Vucic – who presents himself as a moderate partner for the West – tries to outflank his domestic political rivals to the right by reinforcing his nationalist image.
The proliferation of pro-Chinese banners in Belgrade was part of a larger effort that initially appeared to have been designed to create enthusiasm for China in Serbia. A robust public relations campaign in mainstream media outlets and on social media bombarded the public with messages that praised the Serbian government’s response to covid-19, showcased the support it received from China, and downplayed or ignored aid from the EU.
At first glance, the campaign appeared to centre on a contest between China and the EU. In reality, it seems to have been primarily intended to praise the government’s response to the pandemic, with China playing the role of a powerful sidekick. Equally, the banner near the presidential palace was consistent with propaganda the Serbian government had deployed for years – in which Vucic used foreign policy issues to position himself within the Serbian political spectrum. Now, as he prepares his party for parliamentary and local elections this month, he aims to benefit from the optics of the EU’s gaffe in banning exports of medical equipment and China’s readiness to quickly send help.
While China and Russia provided aid to the Serbian government with a great deal of ceremonial swagger, neither the content nor quantity of these deliveries was made public at any point.
Serbia is not the only country in which public discourse on China aligns with the domestic interests of key political actors. In Hungary, an EU member state, regular press releases from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs trumpet new arrivals of protective equipment from China. The Hungarian Parliament, in which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party holds a majority, recently passed a law to classify the details of the construction of the Chinese-funded Budapest-Belgrade railway for ten years. In Italy, pro-China discourse has mainly been the domain of the populist Five Star Movement – which is part of the governing coalition, and which used the pro-Chinese narrative around medical aid to legitimise Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative.
All this raises an important question: does the EU’s public relations strategy adequately counter criticism of its response to the pandemic – relative to resurgent powers such as China and Russia – under the slogan “Team Europe”? The EU’s approach to the covid-19 “battle of narratives” has been to ratchet up its financial and in-kind assistance to candidate states and its wider neighbourhood, promote the visibility of its donations, and strengthen its messaging on partnership and solidarity in the region.
Altogether, the EU has allocated €3.3 billion in various forms of coronavirus-related financial assistance to the Western Balkans. It has provided Serbia with €93m in response to the pandemic. Serbia will benefit from €455m in EU grants and loans for a regional economic recovery package designed to support the private sector. The European Investment Bank will provide €1.7 billion in loans to support economic recovery in the region.
In contrast, while China and Russia provided aid to the Serbian government with a great deal of ceremonial swagger, neither the content nor quantity of these deliveries was made public at any point. This continued a trend: between 2000 and 2018, no Russian financial aid to Serbia was publicly registered, while China made grants to the country worth an estimated €30m. During this period, the EU alone provided Serbia with grants worth around €3.6 billion. Nevertheless, according to an opinion poll taken in February and early March, the Serbian public perceives Russia to be the second-largest donor to their country, almost equalling the EU. The same poll found that 20 percent of Serbs perceive China to be the largest donor, placing the country just 8 percentage points behind the EU. These perceptions are not the result of the battle of narratives around the coronavirus but rather of years of careful framing by the government-controlled Serbian media.
The EU can and should do much better in these contests for popular legitimacy. But, to do so, it needs to differentiate between genuine public grievances and political propaganda from actors that will use any crisis to cement their political power and shield their allies from accountability. In dealing with such actors, one thing is clear: Europe cannot win this public relations battle by appeasing autocrats. Nor can it win the hearts and minds of the population in Serbia, or other countries in the region, by handing out financial aid to authoritarian leaders who will continue to misspend it. The strength of Team Europe will not be measured in the size of donations but, more importantly, in what this funding achieves.
The EU needs to continue supporting its key partners in the Balkans and the wider neighbourhood. But it is time for the EU to direct much more assistance through channels other than highly corrupt governments that consistently violate European norms and standards – be they on democracy, the media, procurement, the environment, or other areas. The EU should look for ways to shift its assistance away from direct budgetary support and towards specially created vehicles that distribute funding. The US Millennium Challenge Corporation may provide some pointers on how to gain greater oversight of the disbursement funds that, ultimately, come from European taxpayers. By establishing such agencies, the EU would also find it easier to channel funds to, say, reformist mayors or hospitals rather than mismanaged governments.
This would certainly require a revision of EU’s modus operandi in the Western Balkans and its wider neighbourhood. But such a model would strengthen the oversight of EU conditions related to good governance and transparency. It is misguided to think that, in the Western Balkans, the EU’s image will deteriorate further if it sets conditions on the use of its funds in the middle of a pandemic. On the contrary, citizens would be grateful to see it establish some limits on blatant corruption and the misuse of public funds. There is a public hunger to see the EU monitor and enforce its established political criteria properly, both in Serbia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans. There is no harm in becoming a little transactional to promote EU objectives and values.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.