PODGORICA — The European Union’s Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi is on a three-day visit to the Western Balkans to formally deliver EU-funded coronavirus vaccines.
Countries of the region aim to join the 27-nation bloc, but Serbia and other Balkan nations have been turning to China and Russia for much-needed shots as EU member states faced their own vaccination delays. Some politicians in the Balkans have criticized the EU for not coming to the rescue of their countries when help was needed the most.
“We care about Montenegro, we care about the Western Balkans and we care about our friends, the people of Montenegro,” Varhelyi said in a speech delivered during a brief stay in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, on May 4.
He started his regional trip in Serbia on May 3, followed by stops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia on May 4. He will travel to Albania and Kosovo the next day.
Last month, the European Commission announced that a total of 651,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses would be delivered to these countries in weekly instalments until August.
The supplies are funded from a 70 million euro assistance package ($85 million) adopted by the commission in December 2020.
While most of the Western Balkan countries have struggled to get coronavirus vaccines, Serbia has launched a successful inoculation campaign mainly thanks to millions of doses of Russia-developed Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines, which so far have not received the green light from the EU’s drug regulator.
Montenegro is to receive 42,000 Pfizer vaccines from the EU, following a delivery from China of 200,000 Sinopharm doses that enabled health authorities to launch their mass immunization program on May 4.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and other nations in the region heavily relied on the World Health Organization’s COVAX sharing scheme that distributes vaccine to less developed nations.
But deliveries were significantly delayed among shortages of the shots and some Balkan countries have been struggling to purchase COVID-19 vaccines directly from manufacturers.
The vaccines supplied by the EU to the region come on top of those provided by COVAX, of which the European bloc is one of the top contributors.
“Together with COVAX we are delivering almost a million doses to the Western Balkans, and this is the beginning,” Varhelyi said in Podgorica, according to a transcript of his speech posted on the European Commission’s website.
“We do hope that as more vaccines come into Europe we would be able to convince more and more Member States to share their available dosses with the Western Balkans.”