Are Serbia and Turkey friends now?

Serbia: China's favorite partner

The man in the simple white coat, friendly and patient, does not fit into the pompous image of the "iron friendship" between Serbia and China. In the Belgrade headquarters of China Railway, Yu Hui calmly shows a model railway that fills half the room.

The express line between Belgrade and Budapest will soon look like the model - built by Chinese and Russian companies. For this, Serbia takes billions in loans from both countries.

"That's not a particular challenge for me," says the Chinese engineer. "I was not only in Pakistan, but also in Egypt, Iran, Argentina."

What is business as usual for Beijing on the New Silk Road means a lot for the small Balkan country. Trains here hardly travel faster than fifty kilometers per hour on average. And now it should be four times as fast? For China it is about the connection from the Greek port of Piraeus to Western Europe.

"We are right on the way to one of the largest markets: the European Union - with 500 million people," says Marko Čadež, President of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

"The Chinese are a godsend"

Serbia is a grateful destination for Chinese money. The country has extensive trade agreements with Brussels, but is not a member of the EU and is therefore not subject to the strict standard rules.

In Belgrade, President Aleksandar Vučić is enthroned, a pragmatic autocrat who keeps the media on a short leash and drives his witch hunt on the opposition. His progress party rules right into the tiniest village. Whether the opening of a bridge built by the Chinese in Belgrade or that of a section of the motorway, Vučić and the television cameras are there.

"The Chinese built bridges and roads for us that Europe was not interested in," says Milomir Marić, the country's best-known moderator. In the studio of the private channel "TV Happy", which is close to the regime, there are wallpapers that simulate bookshelves. What does not exist are critical voices. The president himself is often a guest, and Marić is on his terms.

EU hesitates, China invests - TV star Milomir Marić appreciates the Chinese construction projects in Serbia

As a young man, Marić dreamed what he calls the "American dream": to join the EU, to be part of the West. Now he thinks he won't experience that anymore. Also because Berlin and Brussels set political conditions - Serbia should come to terms with the independence of the former southern province of Kosovo. Beijing and Moscow, on the other hand, oppose the secession of Kosovo in the UN Security Council.

"For us, the Chinese are like a godsend - they gave us loans, but also did a large part of the work," said the TV star.

The money goes back to China

What Marić means can be seen on a sunny October day in the Belgrade district of Zemun. A station for the fast train route is being completed there. You hardly ever see Serbian workers. Most of them come from China, they don't want to say a word to journalists, not even how they are doing in Serbia.

"No insight into how the money is being spent" - Marinika Tepić, Serbian opposition politician

Inquiries from Chinese companies and Serbian ministries also come to nothing. The Chinese now operate a huge steelworks in central Serbia, a smelting plant and copper mine in the east of the country, and a tire factory in the north.

It doesn't matter that they are not so strict about environmental standards - those in power in Serbia prefer jobs. A promising story in a country where most people have to get by on less than 500 euros a month and many jobs are at the mercy of the party.

According to the government, the Chinese "investments" amount to ten billion euros in the past few years. But in official data from the central bank, only 1.6 billion of them can be found by 2019 - a fraction compared to investments from the EU.

Critics say that the Chinese don't invest at all - they just lend the money for the building project. A Chinese company then receives the order and there are Chinese workers who work on the construction sites, soon also underground. Because in addition to French companies, Chinese companies are also to build the subway in Belgrade from next autumn.

Boost the Serbian labor market? It is mainly Chinese who work on the construction site of the new railway line

"What shook us up was the drastic price difference for the building," says Marinika Tepić from the opposition Party for Freedom and Justice. After the Chinese entry into the project, the estimate is 4.4 billion euros - twice as much as previously thought, at that time without the participation of the Chinese. A feat of strength for Serbia with a state budget of around eleven billion euros annually.

Investments would be good, says Tepić. But not the money-burning and corruption she suspects. "We have no insight into how the money is being spent. Chinese companies are protected like polar bears by a bilateral intergovernmental agreement," says Tepić. Because of her criticism, she is denounced as a "traitor" in tabloids, and there have even been death threats.

Geopolitics with vaccines

But even the harshest critics of President Vučić and his preference for China fell silent a few weeks ago. With the delivery of one million doses from the Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinopharm, Serbia is vaccinating much faster than the EU countries. Citizens can even choose whether they want Chinese, Russian or Western vaccines.

Which vaccine should it be? Sputnik from Russia (left) or Sinopharm from China (right)?

Pure geopolitics in the fight against the pandemic. The northern neighbor Hungary follows the example and orders in China. Even Chancellor Merkel says she has nothing against vaccines from the Far East as soon as they are approved by European authorities.

Serbia as a Chinese pilot project on the way to Europe? Nevena Ružić fears that. On Republic Square, the center of Belgrade, between the National Museum, the People's Theater and the pedestrian zone, the lawyer points to white security cameras.

Huawei recognizes you

"See the camera, the round one that looks like a ball? It can turn all the way around. And of course it has face recognition too. They all have face recognition software," she says.

What do you need "Safe City" for? Lawyer and activist Nevena Ružić

Over a thousand such cameras from Huawei are already in the Serbian capital. The police are silent about where exactly, so the activists had to look for them and mark them on a map. It is unclear whether the Serbian police are already using the facial recognition feature.

What is certain: Belgrade is the first European city in which "smart" cameras can be found nationwide. Under the name "Safe City", this should also be an advertisement for Chinese surveillance technology.

"There was no consultation in parliament or among experts. There was no information that was publicly available to understand why we need it," says Ružić, who works for the Open Society Foundation in Belgrade.

Unlike in Europe, privacy is not a central human right in China. "That's why we should ask ourselves whether we should share such sensitive information with such companies across borders."

The Chinese company Huawei supplied Belgrade with smart cameras across the board

The propaganda works

Serbia and its neighboring countries are often disparagingly described as the "backyard" of Europe, where Russia, Turkey or the Gulf countries are also struggling for influence. But China's growing influence in the Balkans is now being viewed critically in the EU. Because it seems clear that the loans also create dependencies that could be used for political influence.

"Oh what!" Says the journalist Marić, the Western Europeans would only tell something like that because they wanted to protect their own economy. "China invests far more in many other European countries or in NATO member states than in Serbia. Chinese goods come to the northern ports of Duisburg, Hamburg and Rotterdam. They all live on Chinese goods," he says. Now people in the West are afraid that a southern route of the Silk Road will emerge from Piraeus via Serbia or Italy, which will create competition.

President Vučić's cuddling course with China is popular with the people. According to a survey from November 2020, 16 percent of citizens consider China to be Serbia's "greatest friend". Only Russia has significantly more approval with 40 percent.

"Thank you, brother Xi!" Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić and China's President Xi Jinping

In particular, China's quick help in the initial phase of the pandemic has burned itself into many Serbs. Chinese protective masks and medical equipment were received personally by Vučić, at what price remained a secret. The fact that the EU is helping with over one hundred million euros during the pandemic is hardly mentioned in the media.

Even some billboards, paid for by a government-affiliated newspaper, helped to inflate China's aid: "Thank you, Brother Xi!" Belgrade residents could read on it. No wonder that in polls, 75 percent of citizens were of the opinion that China helped Serbia the most during the pandemic. The EU is only mentioned as a helper by three percent of people.

DW Deutsch broadcast times:
China's Reach for Europe - The New Silk Road, Part 2

Part 1 of the DW documentation on YouTube:
China's Reach for Europe - The New Silk Road, Part 1