Slovak leader's job swap ends cabinet crisis over Covid and Russian vaccine

Debate over Sputnik V continues as Serbia vaccinates thousands of foreign visitors

Slovakia's ruling coalition has declared its four-week crisis to be over, after prime minister Igor Matovic and finance minister Eduard Heger agreed to swap posts to end a row over the former's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his purchase of a Russian vaccine that does not have European Union approval.

Six ministers resigned after Mr Matovic agreed to buy two million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine without the consent of all four coalition parties, igniting anger over what critics call his erratic and incompetent management of the Covid-19 crisis.

The country of 5.4 million people had the world's highest per capita rate of new coronavirus deaths earlier this month, according to Our World in Data, a position that was held by neighbouring Hungary on Monday as central and eastern Europe continued to battle a fierce third wave of the pandemic.

Slovak president Zuzana Caputova called on Mr Matovic to step down for the sake of the country last week, and Mr Heger said he would seek her approval for a new government under his leadership, after all the coalition parties backed the reshuffle and his nomination as premier.

‘Gesture of forgiveness’

Agreement was reached after the populist Mr Matovic said he would quit without demanding concessions from other ruling parties, in what he called a “gesture of forgiveness” towards those who urged him to resign.

“I have always followed the Old Testament rule of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Today I’ve turned the other cheek . . . and it was damn hard,” he said.

Mr Heger said he would “accept the challenge” of leading government, and all four coalition parties backed his switch with Mr Matovic.

"I welcome this step by Igor Matovic that will end the government crisis, with which we inadvertently traumatised all of Slovakia, " said Boris Kollar, head of the We are Family party.

Opposition figure and former premier Peter Pellegrini said the reshuffle was a sham and Mr Matovic would dominate the new cabinet "because he hasn't held himself politically accountable for his failure . . . and is set to take charge of one of the key ministries."

Slovak scientists are now evaluating Sputnik V. Hungary is the only EU member to use Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccine alongside western-made vaccines.

Neighbouring Serbia is using the same range of vaccines, and offered jabs to foreign visitors over the weekend as a batch of AstraZeneca shots neared its expiry date.

Serbian officials said more than 20,000 shots were given to foreign citizens, most of whom arrived from other Balkan states where access to vaccines is limited.

Critics said the government should do more to fight vaccine scepticism in Serbia, and donate any surplus doses to other countries rather than allow thousands of foreigners to travel through the country during a pandemic.