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Vaccine Diplomacy in Central Asia: Geopolitics, Business and Soft Power

An international online meeting under the auspices of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia and the Oxus Society for Central Asia Affairs has helped to shed light on “Vaccine Diplomacy, Regionalism and Geopolitical Influence in Central Asia”.

Central Asia remains a special geopolitical space, where vaccine diplomacy from Russia, China, Western countries is projected during the pandemic period, while simultaneously trying to establish production within the region. The intertwinement of different geopolitical emphases in vaccine diplomacy influences several clusters in the region.

The choice of the main partner in the field of vaccination in Central Asia will affect not only geopolitics but is also shaped by domestic political and economic factors. An international online meeting under the auspices of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia and the Oxus Society for Central Asia Affairs has helped to shed light on “Vaccine Diplomacy, Regionalism and Geopolitical Influence in Central Asia”.

The essence and rationale of vaccine diplomacy

Alexander Cooley, Director at Harriman Institute, Columbia University, believes that vaccine diplomacy is becoming the geopolitical tool, the geopolitical weapon in the battle for global influence:

Alexander Cooley

“Russia, China, India are among the emerging countries, the diminishing influence of the west and the liberal international order – this is the typical headline”. The article by Lionel Laurant in Bloomberg: “Russia and China are beating the West at vaccine diplomacy” outlines that Russia and China are deploying vaccines strategically around the world and beating out the West in vaccine diplomacy. It gives us the sense that vaccine diplomacy, COVID-19 jabs are the instruments of influence.”

Professor Cooley also highlighted the factors influencing vaccine diplomacy on international relations: “The first is the tension between vaccine nationalism and inequality, and whether the system of global governance and cooperation, that we have, can solve it effectively. Second, perceptions of competence in dealing with COVID-19 within their own countries and vaccine administration. Third, the specific issue of providing selective and public goods to other countries, including vaccines.

The first is simply that we have a situation where vaccine nationalism, that is rich countries ordering vaccines and taking for themselves, are going to leave poor countries behind. There was a controversial map put by the Economist that shows that according to their estimates many countries in the developing world are not going to receive vaccine until late 2022-2023.

The problem is that rich countries, like Canada, the United States, the UK, the EU preordered a bunch of vaccines, multiple times the doses needed for their population size. As a result, the international community has put together the COVAX program that is led by WHO and GAVI (the vaccine alliance). The idea here is to pool the procurement and deliver 2 billion doses of vaccines to poor countries by the end of 2021. 183 countries joined the COVAX, including China, Japan and EU. The U.S. and Russia initially ruled out joining, the U.S. has joined since the Biden administration, Russia indicated to participate in a small way.

The problem is that deliveries are very slow from COVAX. The Health Minister of Kyrgyzstan last month said that the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine doses for Kyrgyzstan would not be allocated. Why? Because it had to be stored at a very low temperature. The refrigerator cost would be prohibitively high and they do not have funds in the budget. This story encapsulates the inequality in the vaccine system but also that the global governance is unresponsive to the needs of the countries like Kyrgyzstan, taking steps unilaterally, and not having their ear on the ground to have appropriate local solution.”

Soft power and the image of states

Experts are unambiguous in their opinion that vaccine supply has an impact on the image of countries and is also associated with the implementation of soft power. Professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University Judyth Twigg believes that Russia’s promotion of the vaccine is a symbol of retaining great power status, pride, respect:

“In terms of vaccine diplomacy Russia was clearly the first country in the world out of the gate. Sputnik V (V stands for ‘Victory’) was the first to be approved by the national government back in August, 2020 and that approval came with a great fanfare. The fact that the vaccine website was set in seven languages tells us about the intended audience for Sputnik V. It was not just domestic but the global audience that they were aiming for.

Judyth Twigg

Sputnik V is now registered in more than 40 countries; it is hard to keep up because number of countries increases every day. There has been a special interest in Latin American countries and within European Union. European medicine agency is beginning the formal review of Sputnik V, and it is likely to be officially approved by the EU soon. The vaccine was confirmed last month safe and highly effective in the peer-reviewed publication in the Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals. Sputnik has been rolled out across Russia. It is very easy to get vaccinated in Moscow. There is wide availability in clinics across country. In fact, if you go to GUM, the luxury department store at the Red Square, you can get a free ice cream along with your jab. In Moscow and in another parts of Russia, it appears that supply of Sputnik V outstrips demand. It looks like there is a substantial vaccine hesitance in Russia. There are many COVID deniers in Russia, many people who are anti-vaccine in general, and many people who do not trust, specifically, the Sputnik V vaccine in Russia.

Internationally, in terms of exercising soft power through provision of vaccine, Russia was aggressively marketing Sputnik V well before any of the western vaccines had regulatory approval. Many countries have now more deals to receive sputnik doses that had been manufactured somewhere else especially in India, and there are many other countries that receive technology and formula from Russia so that they can make the vaccine themselves.

Russia has three goals: Sputnik V is obviously the symbol of retaining great power status, pride, respect. To be the first in the way out of the once in a century global pandemic puts Russia on a map as a great scientific and technological power. Russia portrays itself in that way deliberately.

For instance, when the Sputnik V website was first launched, it took few seconds for the website to load, there was a built-in delay and you were encouraged to push a button on the screen. You got the audio from the broadcast in space referring back to 1957 when the first sputnik satellite was launched. It was the hallmark of the superiority of Russia in the space race, and it is no accident that they evoke that moment now even using the name Sputnik for the vaccine.

Secondly, clearly Russia wants to exercise soft power. Poor and middle-income countries are desperate about access to vaccine.

Russia realizes that there is a diplomatic hope to appear as savior during this unprecedented global crisis.

In particular, Russia is contrasting its own generosity against the perceived selfishness of the United States, Canada, UK that have gobbled up all of the available doses of Pfizer, Moderna and some of the other European vaccines through pre-purchase agreements leaving the rest of the world with nothing. This has happened before with anti-HIV medications. Russia is very anxious to highlight these historical inequities.”

Professor Cooley also adds that how countries manage the epidemic is a form of soft power, it is a form of their soft power, quality of their authority: “Initially, over the summer, we saw very bad marks to the U.S., quite good marks to the EU, bad also quite marks for China. That is just some data from the Pew Research Center on global attitudes towards global leadership and the pandemic. Both China and US have been perceived as doing a bad job in handling the pandemic.

We now moved to a new metric, and it is who can deliverer vaccine doses effectively. Perceptions of how countries are managing the pandemic are very fluid and I think we are going to remember the last metric as opposed to the summer metric. In this area, the positions of the summer are reversed: the UK and the US are effectively and quickly vaccinating their own populations, while the EU is lagging significantly. This is likely to change the interpretation of which countries best managed the pandemic, despite the significant loss of life in the United States.”

Economic and political motives

Vaccine diplomacy in a number of countries is not limited to image intentions, but naturally pursues economic goals. As noted by expert Judyth Twigg, Russia sees Sputnik V as a business opportunity: “Russia wants to maximize market share. They offer Sputnik V for 20 dollars for two doses, quite cheaper than Pfizer and Moderna. There is a longer term set of business interests. Russia has not traditionally been much of the player in pharmaceutical market. So, there is a lot Russia would like to achieve.

Russia needs Central Asia vaccinated since it needs migrant labor from CA to return to Russia that drive Russian economy. There are also political motives. Russia is clearly making it to counter-play the Chinese influence in the region. It has traditionally been Russia’s own backyard. Russia has sold other pharmaceutical products in recent decades in Central Asia.

However, there are caveats about whether Russia is achieving or is likely to achieve its goals. The way Russia has proceeded has not inspired confidence. There is a correct perception that development was rushed, that Sputnik V did not go through the full scientific and regulatory vetting since there was a lot of top-down political pressure to be first in the vaccine race.”

Professor Cooley also believes that “in China vaccine diplomacy is another good on offer within these BRI and Health Silk Route cooperation bundles. It is usually bundled with other goods, private and club goods. And, for Russia, the development of Sputnik – you can see them targeting areas that the West has not reached, the countries that are ambivalent in being part of the liberal international order. It is not cheaper, even though they claim that it is. But the vaccine is intended to enhance Russia’s international prestige and may be used as a diplomatic leaver, for example included within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union agenda.

Temur Umarov

An expert on China and Central Asia, Temur Umarov also reveals the political motives behind Chinese vaccine diplomacy: “China uses all its vaccine producing capacity to roll out its vaccine diplomacy campaign and hear Chinese vaccines have several advantages to Western alternatives. For example, they do not require extra cold storage, which makes distribution a little bit easier. The one registered dose vaccine is also an attractive competitor. That is why, some of the countries are preferring to go to China to get vaccines.

We have seen in the past months that China has been one of the leading countries to export its vaccines. China is very successful in its vaccine diplomacy. But, there are many questions whether China is willing to help other countries or is it another political instrument that China would use to boost its reputation across the world. There are questions about the quality of Chinese vaccines.”

Multivectorism as an axiom for the region

Professor Cooley substantiates the importance of multivector diplomacy in the period of vaccine diplomacy: “We all know, that CA countries practice multi vector diplomacy. But, when it comes to vaccines, every competent country should practice multivector diplomacy since you do not want to rely on any one supplier that would allow complete political leverage over you. Multivectorism when it comes to vaccines should be axiomatic.

Two, certain political elites and parties usually disposed favorably to multipolar politics, signaling that they intend to cooperate with Russia or China, are using vaccine diplomacy in that surface. Vaccine diplomacy: it is real, it is another tool, it is very high profile, and in some cases, contracts are big.”

Judyth Twigg believes that although all five CA countries have registered Sputnik V or are talking with Russia, but none counting exclusively on Russia: “especially Kazakhstan, which started mass vaccination on February 1 using Sputnik V, but Kazakhstan was also the first country in the world, a couple of weeks ago, to announce that it will start local production of Sputnik V and, importantly, that is in addition to Kazakhstan’s own COVID vaccine.

There are also other donors in Central Asia, especially the multilateral development banks. The Asian Development Bank announced 9 billion USD initiative and the World Bank – 12 billion USD effort. Some of it is going through COVAX, some is going to support the bilateral arrangements, and much of it is going to support logistical hurdles and administrative capacity. None of these multilateral development banks’ money is going towards Sputnik V.”

Temur Umarov also mentioned that Central Asia prefers to cooperate cautiously with China on vaccine diplomacy: “Although China has started its talks with governments of Central Asia about the trials in 2020, and it had three producers. It has conducted negotiations about trials with Uzbekistan that is the only and most open to Chinese COVID diplomacy. On the one hand, it is understandable that within the Central Asian society, Uzbekistan is less skeptical of Chinese products as a whole. Now we see that Russia is leading the battle over the Central Asian vaccine diplomacy and all other Central Asian states have negotiated with Russia to get Sputnik V. One of the surveys proves that the majority of CA populations considers Russia to provide the best solution in terms of vaccine, less than a 10 percent supports China. The reason is that, all Central Asian societies are skeptical about the quality of the Chinese goods. The Chinese policy in Xingjiang region, has also an impact on Central Asia.”


Independent analyst Parviz Mullojanov concludes that “there are three factors, that affect the final decisions of the Central Asian governments. First, the external or geopolitical group of factors. This is the choice between Russia, China and Europe, who are major geopolitical actors in the region. In that sense, it is not the choice of the major vaccine but of the partner country.

Parviz Mullojanov

The geopolitical aspects are perceived by the both sides, for the external players it means the prestige, and instrument of future influence that would strengthen their position in the country. This is the opportunity for the country to enter pharmaceutical market.  It is also, a security issue. You cannot stop corona on the borders. There is pressure from the countries we cooperate with, most of the people are coming from those countries. Hence, it is urgent to ensure that there is no corona. It can be also an attempt for future cooperation, like for Tajikistan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. It is a field of trade-offs.

The second cluster includes economic factors, the cost of vaccine delivery and its maintenance. There is also, an issue over the vaccination passports, that are widely discussed in the local media and social networks. It would basically provide clearance for traveling. There is less trust to Chinese providers among the local populations, therefore, the governments have to take it into account.”

Expert Judyth Twigg summed up that “most important perspective, taking the step back, is that we just need as many good vaccines as we can, and as quickly as we can deploy them, no matter where they come from. In that sense, it is somewhat unfortunate that the tenor of the conversation is so much about the competition, rather than collaboration, and Russia makes this statement all the time.  But this is a little disingenuous, since Russia is making this statement at the exact same time as it is proclaiming the superiority of its own and engaging in little bit of disinformation about the Western alternatives. Central Asia is clearly emerging as one of the most important arenas for this diplomatic competition.”

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