Your resignations: how Slovakia drove itself to crisis over vaccination disputes

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The purchase of Sputnik V is only a catalyst for the Slovak government crisis, its main reason lies in internal political competition: According to experts interviewed by Izvestia, the situation around the Russian vaccine has simply become a pretext for a reshuffle in the republic’s cabinet. Against the background of a shortage of vaccines in the European Union, Slovakia was one of the first member states to decide to purchase this drug. And despite the fact that the first batch had already been delivered there, and by June it was planned to vaccinate a fifth of the citizens, serious disagreements arose in the Slovak government.… Sputnik V is still awaiting its approval in Brussels, but more and more EU states are talking about their intention to acquire it.

Not a reason, but a reason

On March 30, after a month of political upheavals, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, the head of the Ordinary People and Independent Individuals (ONL) party, Igor Matovic, resigned.… Instead, the Cabinet was headed by his party member – Minister of Finance Eduard Heger. This scenario did not come as a surprise: the day before, Igor Matovich announced that he would simply swap places with his colleague.

Eduard Heger has not yet announced the composition of the new Cabinet, so it is not known how much the announced reshuffle has been implemented. It is also not clear whether only reshuffles will be enough to resolve the conflict, or whether the new prime minister will have to announce the rejection of the Russian vaccine.… The fact that the manufacturer of “Sputnik V” is ready to cancel the contract with Slovakia without penalties, Igor Matovic said on March 4. However, it is not reported whether these agreements were broken. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF – responsible for promoting Sputnik V) did not answer Izvestia’s question whether the contract with Bratislava was still in force.

The vaccine was only a catalyst for this crisis, as the situation in Slovakia has never been easy– explained to Izvestia the head of the Central and Eastern Europe Research Department of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences Lyubov Shishelina. – Igor Matovich’s party won due to criticism of the anti-pandemic measures of the previous cabinet [Петера] Pellegrini. Now he was already criticized for inaction in the face of the worsening situation in the country since the fall.… In conditions when the EU is not able to provide all countries with a vaccine in order to save its image, Matovic found such a way out (the purchase of Sputnik V). At the same time, in Slovakia, mistrust of Russia is alive, it has spread to the Russian vaccine.

According to the expert, the crisis in the Slovak government is not over yet – however, the reason is not in the vaccine, but in the internal political competition

The coalition cabinet of the republic includes four parties: the center-right OLNL and We are the Family, the liberal Freedom and Solidarity and the liberal-conservative For People (founded by the country’s ex-president Andrei Kiska). The first two advocate the import of all effective drugs for COVID-19, the second – for the use of only those approved by the European Union.

In mid-February, the Slovak Cabinet of Ministers could not agree on whether it would buy the Russian vaccine, so Igor Matovic and the head of the Ministry of Health Marek Krajci took the situation into their own hands – in early March they issued permission to use Sputnik V in the country without asking for an opinion coalition partners… The latter rejected this decision: Foreign Minister Ivan Korchok called the Russian drug “a tool in a hybrid war”, and Deputy Prime Minister and head of the For People party Veronika Remishova said that after such a decision, her movement could even leave the government … Slovak President Zuzana Čaputova also spoke out against Sputnik V – in her opinion, “the use of the Russian vaccine is not a manifestation of courage or proof of diplomatic success”.

This scandal cost several members of the Slovak Cabinet of Ministers: first the Minister of Economy and the leader of “Freedom and Solidarity” Richard Sulik, the Minister of Justice Maria Kolikova, the Minister of Labor Milan Krajniak and the Minister of Health Marek Krajci, then the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivan Korchok and the Minister of Education Bronislav Grüling. Most of them will get back their seats in the new cabinet.

Sputnik roams Europe

Today Slovakia is the second EU country to approve the use of Sputnik V on its territory. The first batch was delivered there on March 1; in total, by June 2021, it is planned to deliver 2 million doses to the republic – for 1 million out of 5.4 million residents. Hungary has already purchased the drug… Thus, these Eastern European members of the European Union went bypassing the EU’s unified vaccination strategy. The general approach assumes that Brussels will take over the procurement and distribution among the member countries of drugs that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

By the end of March, four vaccines out of six reserved have received EU authorization: BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson). Sputnik V is not included in this list. One side, there are news in the media that Brussels is ready to start negotiations with Moscow on the purchase of a Russian drug, there are calls from European countries to authorize the vaccine, and the World Health Organization (WHO) argues that in the face of a shortage of “Sputnik V” the European Union needs.

On the other hand, there is no official confirmation from Brussels in this regard – As the European Commission told Izvestia earlier, “negotiations on expanding the EU vaccine portfolio with a Russian drug are not underway.” Moreover, the European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton said on March 21: the European Union “absolutely does not need Sputnik V”. He stressed that at the moment Europe has the most approved vaccines, and whoever has problems with their production is the Russians: “if they need help, we will return to this in the second half of the year, but now the priority is given to the Europeans.” … The Russian Foreign Ministry called this approach politicized – it noted that initially the EU chose “a noticeably lame line of cooperation exclusively with Western companies” and that Thierry Breton’s statements indicate that there is “complete ideological chaos among Western partners.”

The French newspaper Le Monde wrote on March 30 that due to the attitude towards Sputnik V a split occurred in the European Union.… Citing sources, the publication reported that in the near future the European Commission will nevertheless enter into negotiations with the RDIF, since several countries are actively insisting on this, primarily Germany. In the meantime, the Russian vaccine is awaiting its approval at the EMA – As the agency told Izvestia, “the authorization period will depend on the company’s ability to provide the necessary data and answer questions that arise during the assessment.”

If the EMA delays the approval of Sputnik V, then not only Hungary and Slovakia, but also other countries will decide to apply the vaccine on their own… Certain states are rushing to Brussels. Sometimes, as happened in Slovakia, this issue becomes an object when political interests clash, ”Vladislav Belov, deputy head of the RAS Institute of Europe, told Izvestia. – Any vaccine is hundreds of billions of dollars, and any company that enters this market falls under the gun of geopolitics. Therefore, all means of unfair competition can be used here, up to provocations.

Meanwhile, Austria announced its intention to purchase Sputnik V: according to its Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the authorities “have been in good dialogue with the Russian side” since February and starting from April they can purchase 1 million doses of the drug.… Before that, he said that Vienna plans to wait for the approval of the EMA, therefore, it is not yet clear how vaccination will take place in the republic. The Austrian Ministry of Health did not provide a prompt comment to Izvestia’s question whether the authorities plan to authorize Sputnik V at the national level.