Slovakia’s Covid-19 vaccine deal with Russia divides government

Prime minister Igor Matovic denies Sputnik V is part of Moscow’s ‘hybrid war’ with EU

Slovakia's coalition government is under severe strain over a decision by prime minister Igor Matovic to buy Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, which his foreign minister called a tool in the Kremlin's "hybrid war" against the West.

Mr Matovic unexpectedly announced on Monday night that Slovakia – which has the world's highest per capita death rate from Covid-19 – had bought two million doses of Sputnik V, which has not been approved by EU regulator the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Several prominent members of Slovakia’s ruling alliance condemned the move as another misstep in the populist government’s struggle with the pandemic.

"It is clear that Sputnik V is not just a vaccine, but a tool in hybrid warfare. Otherwise, if it were just a vaccine, the first thing its manufacturers would do is try to enter the market, as others have done," said Slovak foreign minister Ivan Korcok.

"It divides us at home, it divides us abroad, it aims to create doubt about processes in the European Union. I don't see a reason why the Russian producer has not applied for registration in the EU, other than that they want to use the vaccine as a political tool," he added.

The makers of Sputnik V insist it is safe and effective, and say they have applied for approval from the EMA – a claim denied by the agency last month.

Hungary was the first EU state to buy Sputnik V and China's Sinopharm vaccine – which also does not have EMA approval – and its nationalist government has been a vocal critic of the bloc's troubled vaccine rollout amid long-running disagreement with Brussels on many issues.

Mr Korcok also lambasted Mr Matovic for welcoming the first delivery of Sputnik V at Kosice airport, after batches of western-made vaccines arrived in Slovakia without any fanfare.

“It’s not a gift – it’s merchandise that has its price,” Mr Korcok said, adding that he wanted to meet Slovakia’s president, speaker of parliament and Mr Matovic to seek “reassurance that nothing has changed in our foreign policy”.

Chattering classes

Mr Matovic dismissed Mr Korcok’s qualms as “completely useless politicisation of the question: Sputnik V is a vaccine” and suggested the issue was only of interest to the chattering classes of “Bratislava cafe society”.

Health minister Marek Krajci signed a permit for the use of Sputnik V in Slovakia, which included a proviso that doctors take "full responsibility for treatment with an unregistered medicine".

Senior figures from the For the People party and Freedom and Solidarity, which are part of the governing coalition, also decried Mr Matovic's decision on Sputnik V and his general handling of the pandemic, and one member of parliament, Tomas Valasek, quit the ruling alliance in protest.

Neighbouring Czech Republic, which has the highest per capita Covid-19 infection rate in the EU, is also considering buying Sputnik V.

"We cannot wait for EMA, when Russia has not applied [for approval]," Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said on Sunday.

“Sixty-five countries in the world want the Russian vaccine, including six EU countries, so why say, ‘Jesus, it’s terrible?’ ” he added, without revealing which states he had in mind.