Is Romania seeking to emulate the practice of vaccine diplomacy carried out elsewhere in the world? Firstly, it is important to understand the current global context in which humanitarian aid is being delivered both by countries that have supported the scientific research and production of these vaccines as well as by those that have acquired these vaccines. Among states that have supported the production of vaccines, China is the latest country where new brands Sinovac and Sinopharn have been produced, leading to global competition in vaccine production as well as the contested use of ‘vaccine diplomacy’. Secondly, one should note that when it comes to donations of vaccines, countries where these have been produced had been the obvious candidates to engage in ‘vaccine diplomacy’. However in practice, those that have been able to acquire these vaccines early on after their approval by the WHO and the European Medicines Agency provided or pledged humanitarian aid to either neighbouring countries or low income countries. Romania is such an example, but not the only one.
The international response to the Covid-19 pandemic
Following the production and approval by the World Health Organization of the Astra Zeneca/Oxford, Moderna, BionTech/Pfizer, Jonhson and Jonshon. Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, the priority of governments in Europe and across the world has been to immunize their own population. Despite this, the use of what has now come to be known as ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has been widespread. What did this then entail in practice?
According to Reuters, in April 2021 the United States had pledged to send 4 million doses of vaccines to Canada and Mexico. It also recently decided to take a leadership role in worldwide donations by sharing 80 million US doses of vaccine through COVAX. This initiative is the result of concerted efforts by global leaders and private donors to channel their efforts through a public-private partnership towards the development, production and access to vaccines and medical treatment for Covid 19.
The UK government supports this initiative, being one of the countries channeling its humanitarian aid efforts through this multilateral mechanism similarly to the US. In addition to supporting COVAX, humanitarian aid consisting of medical equipment such as ventilators as well as vaccines produced in India that have been produced for the UK market has been pledged by the UK to India.
COVAX is important as it aims to provide a global response that is nevertheless dominated by the distribution of the approved brands by WHO, thus increasing the push for regional and global competition. Thus, despite its global aims, it is not the unique channel for ‘vaccine diplomacy’. Russia has adapted to the global competition brought about by vaccine production across the world, being the first country to register the Sputnik V vaccine in August 2020. Whilst Russia has supported the development of this vaccine it still remains unapproved by the WHO, with the European Medicines Agency still reviewing it. Russian ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has nevertheless meant a string of bilateral deals with countries from across the globe. Moldova and Ukraine have been left open to regional competition in ‘vaccine diplomacy’, with Russia sending vaccines to the Donbass region and responding to requests for the delivery of the Sputnik vaccines from Transnistria. In the case of Sputnik vaccines the competition in ‘vaccine diplomacy’ has come from China, or other European member states,
Vaccine diplomacy and Romania’s humanitarian aid to the Republic of Moldova
In February 2021 Romania has delivered humanitarian aid to the Republic of Moldova consisting of Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccines, with the most recent shipment of this brand of vaccines being carried out on the 27th of May 2021.. If looking at ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Transnistria it should be noted that the unrecognized state also received Astra -Zeneca vaccines donated by Romania.
In the context of these existing trends, Romania’s actions are not surprising. Especially as these have not been unique to the case of the Republic of Moldova, but rather a concerted effort towards the countries of the Eastern Partnership that had been sought within the EU. In this context one needs to look at the European context in which Romania has reacted to the pandemic through what is now known as ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ At EU level, a common decision by the 27th members was reached through the EU Vaccines Strategy. By agreeing to this Strategy, from January 2021 Romania was able to negotiate advance contracts for vaccines for the immunization of its own population based on a quota mechanism proportionate to its population. In addition, since June 2021 Romania has agreed to be part of endeavours of a number of EU member states regarding the development of a European Mechanism for the Access of the EaP States to the COVID-19 Vaccine. This was designed to support the countries of the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans and was initiated by Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. According to DW, Germany also donated medical infrastructure worth 9.6 million Euros pledging in June 2021 support for the government in buying 700.000 doses of Biotech/Pfizer vaccines. Other vaccine donations to Moldova were carried out with the support of the EU through COVAX.
This shows that in the case of COVID 19, existing international organizations have offered states a forum for’ vaccine diplomacy’. If looking within the EU this practice has not remained free of criticism. Indeed the German foreign minister, speaking at the G20 summit against Russian and Chinese ’vaccine diplomacy’ has come from an understanding that the world should aim for a global and united responses rather than seek to gain short-term geopolitical advantages. Indeed, critics of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ argue for a concerted effort towards dealing with the pandemic. However, when judging Romania’s decision to provide humanitarian aid one should also look at the institutions and existing agreements on the basis of which these gestures have been undertaken. Romania is operating both within the context of the Eastern Partnership but also on the basis of previous bilateral commitments to the Republic of Moldova that are framed through the strategic partnership between the two countries. On the basis of this partnership, Moldova is the main recipient of humanitarian aid from Romania.
If we look at the context in which the Astra Zeneca donated by Romania reached Transnistriia, one can better understand the political implications of the Covid-19 crisis not only for the recognized states, but also for the unrecognized ones. While for recognized countries around the world, the option to enter the global and regional competition for access to vaccines was made possible by their membership in various international organisations, for Transnistria, the commitment to the outside world towards the purchase of vaccines is limited by the fact that all aid and medical supplies has to come through Moldova.
In this context it should be noted that any diplomatic action taken by Romania towards the Republic of Moldova can have an important impact upon existing divisions in the country, in this case the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict. Whilst in the case of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ this is so far hard to measure. Romania’s humanitarian aid to the Republic of Moldova can thus be viewed in the context of the different response that states have to the ongoing crisis that involve either joint diplomatic efforts as part of regional organizations or efforts towards a global response as we have seen in the case of COVAX. Moldova received donations from countries throughout the world, and in respect to Transnistria, had the advantage of having the means to distribute all types of vaccines and supplies.
Just like any other diplomatic gesture, ‘vaccine diplomacy’ should be viewed as dependent on a particular country’s prior commitments and alliances. If one looks at diplomatic efforts during other global crises, such moments always produce opportunities for forging new alliances and renewing different political and diplomatic commitments. In this case one can view Romania’s actions as grounded in several aspects. Once the vaccine has become a global commodity, humanitarian aid consisting of vaccines has become a diplomatic practice. In this case Romania’s actions in the Republic of Moldova only show its capacity to emulate alongside other EU member states-even if not the entire European Union- a global practice. Secondly one should not consider this to be a major change from previous foreign policy commitments that Romania has voiced over the years regarding the Eastern Partnership, despite the fact that vaccines have now become an integral part of its diplomacy in the region. Whilst the power of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ at the beginning of the pandemic has been left in the hands of a few producing countries, with the widespread distribution of vaccines on the global market, it can now be used by any country that has the financial means and political will to acquire and donate them. The way in which this is done- be it through regional multilateral institutions, bilateral initiatives or through a global commitment to those that do not have the possibility to access them- is nevertheless still the current issue facing any state engaging in ‘vaccine diplomacy’.