First came billions of dollars of investment, then millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Now there is a campaign for Serbia to thank China in a way that harks back to a bygone era: by building a statue to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), called “comrade Xi” by backers of the campaign.
The proposal comes from the fringe New Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which has paid for billboards in Belgrade to rally support for the tribute to Xi to be built in a local park.
While the Serbian government has not said if it backs the idea, there is little doubt that Serbia has gravitated more toward the East than West during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serbia, along with EU member Hungary, shot ahead of much of the continent in inoculating its populations after directly purchasing vaccines from China when the program orchestrated by Brussels was floundering.
That was also as the leaderships in Belgrade and Budapest continued to court China’s soft power.
In Belgrade, a new US$55 million Chinese Cultural Center is being finished on the site of the former Chinese embassy destroyed by NATO missiles in 1999 when the military alliance intervened to stop Serbia’s crackdown in Kosovo.
The sprawling facility is to feature conference rooms and exhibition halls.
Hungary plans to donate land for a Chinese university campus in Budapest, despite objections from the city’s mayor and criticism within the EU over closer ties with Beijing.
Budapest and Belgrade are also to be connected by a new railway link financed by Chinese loans and built by Chinese companies.
The friendship has particularly worked out for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The world’s most populous nation has invested in Serbia’s sole steelmaker, bought by China’s HBIS Group, and the biggest copper and gold miner, now controlled by Zijin Mining.
Together with contracts awarded to Chinese builders redeveloping Serbia’s infrastructure, investments exceed US$8 billion.
The government praised Xi effusively a year ago when China first sent critical medical aid, including hospital ventilators.
Serbia then imported 3.7 million Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine doses, accounting for almost 70 percent of doses it has acquired so far.
Serbia has fully vaccinated about 27 percent of its population, compared with an average of 15 percent in the EU, Bloomberg data showed.
The question is what cozying up to China means for Serbia’s road to EU membership, which Vucic is pursuing.
Along with Russia, China has backed Serbia’s continuing claim over Kosovo, which Belgrade must drop if it wants to join the bloc.
The EU’s investment in Serbia also dwarfs that of China.
For others, that can only be a good thing.
“Serbian people value true friends,” said Aleksandar Banjanac, the new communist party’s 38-year-old secretary general and the driving force behind the statue plan. “It would be a symbolic, but important gesture to show our gratitude for all the help.”
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