Dear reader,

the Russian and Chinese vaccines continue to steal the spotlight in Central Europe, Lithuania leaves the 17+1, the EU moves to sanction Russian officials, and much more in our biweekly roundup of stories making the headlines.
 

As Central European nations mark the first anniversary of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland join Hungary in looking for vaccines outside of joint EU schemes.

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič shocked the nation by covertly inking a deal on importing two million doses of Russian Sputnik V vaccines. The plan was revealed only when a Slovak military cargo airplane embarked to Moscow.

Matovič’s one-man show spiraled into a domestic crisis, sparking an open conflict amongst the governing coalition parties. The move was also panned by the Slovak MFA, with foreign minister Ivan Korčok calling Russian vaccines a “tool of hybrid warfare” and criticizing Matovič‘s red-carpet treatment for the delivery. However, Matovič deflected the criticism, saying that his decision was not based on politics, but rather “saving lives”, citing data that some 10 percent of the Slovak population is willing to be inoculated only if offered the Russian vaccine. Sputnik V has already been given an exemption by the Health Minister for therapeutic use and inoculation is to start in the following weeks.

Unsurprisingly, Matovič‘s comments gained traction in Russian state media and were used to substantiate claims that Sputnik V is facing geopolitical hurdles in Europe. However, the real problem has been the lack of an official request for certification in Europe, with the rolling review by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) starting only on March 4. While EMA discouraged the use of uncertified vaccines, Matovič panned the agency for being too slow.

In Czechia, President Zeman continues to push for the Sputnik V vaccine and officially made a request for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine as well. On both counts, Zeman has the support of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, and China and Russia are reportedly willing to deliver. While Zeman argues that EU certification can be circumvented and approval by the Czech drugs regulator will be sufficient, the regulator itself denied such a process is possible. Instead, the Czech Minister of Health would need to grant an exemption—a move he has repeatedly refused to take.

Finally, Poland, which has thus far seemed content to wait for the EU vaccine approval, entered the vaccine game as well. In a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Polish President Andrzej Duda communicated Poland's interest in Chinese vaccines. Xi Jinping was reportedly happy to oblige, honoring the pledge he made at the 17+1 summit. However, no specific deal is in sight as talks on the working level are set to continue. Moreover, Polish Health Minister threw cold water on the plans, saying that Poland prefers to use “tested products”.

As China and Russia’s efforts in vaccine diplomacy continue to develop, we will continue to keep a close eye on the situation. 

Our esteemed colleague Veronika Blablová has created this handy graphic mapping the use/planned use of Chinese vaccines around the world. We count 55 nations who have received or are to receive Chinese vaccines, with at least seven more actively considering it.

  • The EU puts its sanctions regime to use. On March 2, new EU sanctions against representatives of Putin's regime entered into force after being previously approved by the EU foreign ministers at the FAC meeting at the end of February. The latest wave of European punitive measures presents the first time the recently approved Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime was actually used against authoritarian regimes suppressing human rights. The four sanctioned individuals were targeted for their involvement in the case of Alexey Navalny and his sentencing to prison for earlier fabricated accusations, amidst calls by the European Court of Human Rights of the Council of Europe to release him. It is symbolic that the European Union decided to make use of its new foreign policy instrument in relations with Russia, which have been dramatically degrading in the past weeks. Together with the upgraded guiding principles for the EU's policy on Russia, this move signals a new confrontational approach. This also sets a precedent that the EU is not afraid to concretely react to human rights violations elsewhere around the world, including in authoritarian regimes, such as Belarus or possibly China, which might be next in line considering the gradually worsening situation Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Here, the Chinese rubber-stamp legislature is set to approve electoral reform this week, effectively ending any semblance of democracy in the region.

  • After the summit flop for China's Xi, Lithuania leaves 17+1. The Lithuanian government has decided to withdraw from the 17+1 format, becoming the first nation to do so in the format‘s history. Lithuania also hopes to coordinate its stance with the other Baltic nations. Per the Lithuanian MFA spokesperson quoted in Reuters, “the economic initiative did not bring the expected result to Lithuania, so we plan to concentrate on developing our economic relationship with China bilaterally, and within the framework of EU and China cooperation”. Lithuania also hopes to improve its relationship with Taiwan, planning to open a trade office in Taipei this year, which already invited a rebuke from Beijing. As our Polish analyst Alicja Bachulska said for the South China Morning Post, “as the economic results of cooperation are minimal and the political costs are increasingly higher, CEE states are reassessing their attitude towards Beijing”. Our Slovak analyst Matej Šimalčík added that “the fear of possible Chinese retaliation will always be part of the calculation” for countries mulling potentially controversial moves on the China front. “However, recent events ‎show that China lacks proper leverage vis-à-vis CEE countries”, Matej concludes. Other nations might follow Lithuania, as discontent with China is growing across the region.

  • The EU remains an easy target for disinformation. On March 1, the EU‘s Chief Diplomat Josep Borrell admitted during the foreign interference committee (INGE) session of the European Parliament that the EU does not have the capacity to fight disinformation from China. This caused quite some stir in Brussels and beyond as a sign of surrendering in front of foreign influence operations, disinformation, and interference in domestic processes from third parties. At the same time, Borrell’s statement can also be read as a call for action. Despite some progress, the situation remains complicated also on the level of EU member states. The Czech Republic, for example, keeps struggling with the disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing “infodemics”, which is often exacerbated by authoritarian governments. Similarly, the strategic and crisis communication of the Cabinet of PM Andrej Babiš is still weak and fragmented. In addition, the government is apparently not able to use some of the positive elements and strengths of the Czech approach to this topic, e.g. cooperation with well-established civil society sector, experience with support to independent media, or solid analysis and understanding of the problem, since most of the plans remain on the paper waiting for stronger impetus and political will, possibly after the upcoming parliamentary vote in October 2021. 

  • Matej Šimalčík has a new article published in Asia Europe Journal on China’s image in Slovakia, building upon the previous research of the MapInfluenCE project (read here).
  • Ivana Karásková talked about our region‘s experience with China for the  CEE - Central Europe Explained, a podcast series by IDM (listen here).

  • Our colleague Kevin Curran discussed the current state of US-China rivalry in the critical semiconductor industry and the role of Taiwan for The Diplomat (read here).

  • In an interview for German Institute for Security Policy, Pavel Havlíček opined how Russia has “gone over any limit of insolence by now” and what that means for EU‘s Russia policy going forward (read here).

  • Ivana Karásková talked about the prospects for the V4-China relations for Young China Watchers (watch here).

Interdependencies and Dependencies: China – Eastern Europe –European Union, March 26, 2021

Ivana Karásková will be one of the speakers at the annual conference organized by the German Association for East European Studies in cooperation with Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Mercator Institute for China Studies. Ivana will be talking about China‘s “falling from grace” in Central and Eastern Europe, discussing the main factors influencing the perception of China in the region. You can register to attend the conference via Zoom or you can also watch the live stream of the event.

Click for more information

Also keep following our social media for more information on the upcoming European launch of the Czech informal platform “Friends of Free Russia”.

Do you like our newsletter? Is there something you would like us to improve or is there something we are missing? Hit us up with your suggestions. Feedback is always welcome!

Best regards


Filip Šebok
Project Manager of MapInfluenCE


www.mapinfluence.eu
www.amo.cz

Newsletter editor: Filip Šebok

Contributions from: Pavel Havlíček

@MapInfluenCE and #MapInfluenCE

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