The Sputnik V Saga

The Sputnik V Saga

The First (And Last) Year of the Matovič Government

04/2021  | Reading time: 10 minutes

The current Slovak government was inaugurated a year ago, but the first (and only) anniversary of the Matovič government was defined by a political crisis and chaos in pandemic management, which has a huge impact on the country’s society and international reputation. The prime minister’s resignation a few days ago and the following cabinet reshuffle could defuse the crisis, but it just a question of time for new cleavages to appear between the coalition partners.

Making huge advantage of the public disillusionment with domestic political elites that has characterised the Slovak society since the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé were murdered, Igor Matovič created expectations about introducing a change into governance and about transparently investigating the close ties between politics and organised crime. The four-party coalition led by Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Obyčajní ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti, OĽANO) was able to achieve a constitutional majority that was described as the strongest parliamentary force in Slovakia’s modern history. However, the new government had to face not only the challenge of investigating the previous corrupt, mafia-style system but also the first wave of the pandemic that started to cause serious economic and social problems for Slovakia from the first day the Matovič cabinet took office.

Despite the elections and coalition negotiations, this first wave was handled well by the new government. Then, to avoid going into full lockdown during the second wave, Matovič decided on regular nationwide antigen testing. Healthcare experts did not support his idea, and, indeed, the strategy failed while the government lost control of the crisis within a few weeks. Due to the shortage of domestic healthcare personnel, the country was forced to turn to other EU member states for medical assistance at the beginning of 2021. The president also urged the government to change its pandemic-management strategy as the country was heading for disaster. The prime minister blamed the chaos on his political rival, Richard Sulík, leader of the junior coalition party, Freedom and Solidarity (Sloboda a Solidarita, SaS), and publicly accused him of blocking the lockdown. Later, Matovič explicitly held him responsible for the deaths of Slovak citizens. The coalition partners called on the health minister to resign, stating that they were ready to leave the coalition if there were no changes in crisis management. In February 2021, Slovakia had the most hospitalised COVID-19 patients per capita in the world and the highest average of daily deaths per million people globally.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people globally—moving the slider, you can follow how the situation became more and more alarming in Slovakia
Source: Our World in Data

Struggling with the lagging roll-out of vaccines approved by the EMA, the vaccination is progressing extremely slowly in Slovakia (on 19 April 2021, less than 1 million people received the first vaccine in the country of roughly 5.5 million—it is the third-lowest rate in the whole EU). To find a solution to the situation, Matovič purchased 2 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine without the agreement of their coalition partners at the end of February. The then prime minister welcomed the first batch of 200,000 Sputnik V jabs personally in Košice airport on 1 March 2021. Matovič was strongly criticised for his move, and the already simmering coalition tensions heightened with the secret purchase, igniting a crisis that resulted in the departure of six ministers.

So the country needed to face the third wave of the pandemic without a minister of health, labour, economy, justice, education, and foreign affairs. At this point, even the president of the country urged the prime minister to resign and reshuffle the government, as the collapse of the coalition seemed unavoidable. To find a suitable solution, the prime minister swapped his seat with the minister of finance, and this made five out of six ministers who had earlier resigned return to their previous positions. It means that, although the country has a new prime minister, Eduard Heger, his party leader, Igor Matovič, who has now the position of minister of finance, holds sway over his political decisions. Since the reshuffle was carried out, Slovak domestic politics has been defined by random decisions made by the new finance minister.

As prime minister, Matovič purchased the vaccines in a fast and secretive manner, and the case continues to raise serious questions that have important corollaries in not only Slovakia but the EU, as well. The State Institute for Drug Control (Štátny ústav pre kontrolu liečiv, ŠÚKL) stated that it was unable to make a conclusive decision on the Sputnik V vaccine’s efficacy and safety due to the lack of data the Russian producer had failed to provide. The chair of ŠÚKL, Zuzana Baťová, informed the media about the fact that roughly 80% of the valid data needed for the evaluation of the vaccines were not available, and she also stated that the batches did not have the same characteristics and properties as the version of Sputnik V reviewed by the respected British medical journal The Lancet. In February, this journal published a review about the vaccine, stating that its efficacy against COVID-19 was about 91.6% . As she stated, ŠÚKL found that “these vaccines [were] only associated by the name.” Therefore, ŠÚKL still recommended using only those vaccines that were registered.

In a series of Twitter messages, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which had financed the development of Sputnik V vaccines, accused ŠÚKL of carrying out an “act of sabotage” and Slovakia of violating the contract about the vaccines in multiple instances. Matovič, who had made the deal with Russia, turned against ŠÚKL and wrote a Facebook post about “someone” who was playing a “dirty game” in Slovakia. He also added that he and the former health minister were the victims of that dirty game, stating that the unspecified “they” had been doing everything to block the use of the Russian vaccine in Slovakia. Matovič openly attacked the leadership of ŠÚKL and claimed that the Russian provider wanted the vaccines back because Slovakia tested them in a laboratory without an EU Official Medicines Control Laboratory certification, violating, therefore, the contract between Russia and Slovakia.

As a response, ŠÚKL issued a statement saying that it had no prior knowledge about the contract as it was undisclosed and unknown to the institute. The statement also claimed the agency had asked for cooperation from thirty official laboratories that are certified for vaccine and drug control but all of them were busy with controlling already registered vaccines. The vaccines were, therefore, tested in cooperation with the Biomedicine Research Center of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Šarišské Michalany, Eastern Slovakia. The agency also noted that the tests had been made at the previous health minister’s written request and nobody had warned them that they would violate the contract by testing the vaccine in the special laboratory. Matovič blamed ŠÚKL that it had caused severe damage to the Russian producer by testing the vaccine in a non-registered laboratory and that the result it had published “flooded the world,” damaging the reputation and the image of the vaccine already in use in many countries over the world. As he noted, he fully understood the disappointment of the Russian side.

As Minister of Finance, Matovič immediately made an unexpected visit to Moscow to meet with Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Following a quick negotiation that was evaluated as “productive meeting” by Matovič, the Slovak politician said that the “door remained opened” for Slovakia in Moscow. It was not clarified why Matovič, i.e., the minister of finance, had travelled to Moscow, and why the Slovak diplomacy had not been notified about his travel in time. The new prime minister, Heger, explained the situation, stating that Matovič had started the negotiations with Russia as the previous prime minister, and, therefore, his personal engagement was the most important factor at that point. According to the Slovak diplomacy, Matovič’s trip to Moscow was a diplomatic faux pas, and it undermined the consistency of the Slovak foreign policy.

In the meantime, President Čaputová studied the unpublished contract and also read the letter in which the Russian producer asked for returning the Sputnik V vaccines. She opined that the Slovak laboratory’s missing registration was not the reason why Russia had asked the vaccines back, and she also called on the cabinet to make the contract public. Later, the minister of justice also studied the document, and she reinforced the statement made by the president. Although it is not clear yet what the exact reasons were for the Russian producer to state that Slovakia made multiple contract violations, it is sure that the Slovak finance minister has misled not only the Slovak but the whole international community.

The former Slovak PM is tight-lipped about the Sputnik V deal
Source: Lucia Plaváková • Progresívne Slovensko (@plavakova)/Facebook

As it was mentioned before in reference to Matovič’s statement, the Slovak case has caused huge damage to the Russian vaccine in those days when, due to the Europe-wide lack of vaccines, countries such as Germany, Austria, or the Czech Republic are actively interested in the possible future purchase of Sputnik V. The case caused serious damage to the Slovak diplomacy, as well. Although Richard Sulík, the leader of the junior coalition party, SaS, stated that he did not see Matovič’s trip to Moscow as an international affair, Slovak diplomacy is more concerned about it. While Sulík interprets the finance minister’s trip to Moscow as an attempt to save the vaccine, make it accessible for people, and speed up vaccination in the country, former NATO ambassador and now MP Tomáš Valašek evaluates the visit as another potential bone of contention that can lead to government collapse. Valašek, together with MEP Vladimír Bilčík, called attention to the fact that Matovič had visited Moscow in the very days when Russia was gathering its troops at the Ukrainian border, which was a huge mistake from a high representative of an EU and NATO member state. Prime Minister Heger understood these concerns and stated that Slovakia fully supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Unprecedentedly, Slovakia’s current ambassadors wrote an open letter to the minister of finance, calling his improvised visit to Moscow an “insult to the Slovak diplomacy” and the “humiliation of Slovakia.”

While Russian vaccines are waiting for the results of the EMA review, the new Slovak health minister announced that Slovakia would use Sputnik V only if it was approved by EMA. It seems the political wrangling is over and the new prime minister’s crisis management will be made in a calmer style. The case of Sputnik V has, however, shown that Matovič is still actively coordinating political decisions as the party leader and a political showman.

The new prime minister defines himself as a Christian activist who is a former restaurant manager with no experience in high-level politics. He seems to be a bureaucrat who does not attract people unlike Matovič. Most probably, this is the reason why the former prime minister trusts him: it seems he is no rival to him, as he has not had too much authority so far. Heger, however, might be similar to Peter Pellegrini, as their paths to high politics show strong similarities, too. In the previous Fico government, Pellegrini was almost invisible, just as Heger now. After Fico’s departure, however, Pellegrini was able to gain people’s trust. Later, he and some other politicians left their party SMER–SD and established their own political formation named Hlas (Voice). As Matovič’s OĽANO now, SMER–SD also lost its support, and Pellegrini was able to gain the trust of the voters, so Hlas is the leading opposition party today. We also have to take into consideration that, although the Sputnik V saga caused damages to it, the coalition seems stable after the reshuffle. However, the main element of instability is still there—it is none other than the finance minister.


The opening pic is by Ales_1985/Shutterstock

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