BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – When the Slovak Prime Minister greeted a military plane carrying 200,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in March, he proudly posed for photos on the tarmac in front of crates full of what he expected to be the medical salvation of his country.
Slovakia at the time had the highest per capita death rate in the world from Covid-19, and the arrival of the Russian vaccine offered a rare ray of hope. For Russia, it also offered great benefits: a small but symbolically important new market for its product in the European Union, which has so far refused to register the vaccine and has urged member states to suspend orders until ‘approval is granted.
But the effort of Slovak leader Igor Matovic quickly exploded in his face, costing him his job and toppling almost the entire government – just three months after adopting a new security strategy rooted in unequivocal support for NATO and mistrust of Russia.
The strongly pro-Western Slovak government, torn between its commitment to abide by European rules and the desperation of a way out of the health crisis, has been in crisis for weeks.
It is still unclear whether Sputnik V, the world’s first registered vaccine, is the medical breakthrough proclaimed last summer by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, but it has already proven remarkably effective in causing disarray and confusion. division in Europe.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron recently spoke with Mr. Putin about possible deliveries of Sputnik, which Mr. Macron’s own foreign minister described as a “propaganda tool”. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, furious that European regulators were slow to approve Sputnik, clashed with German leader Angela Merkel over the bloc’s vaccination program, which so far only involves Western vaccines .
But Slovakia provides the most concrete example of how Russian vaccine diplomacy has had side effects that can be highly toxic.
The decision of Mr Matovic, then Slovak Prime Minister, to order two million doses of Sputnik V put the country at odds with the European Union and led one of the most decidedly pro-Western governments in Europe to the east on the verge of collapse as junior partners. in a broken government coalition, outraged by the importation of Sputnik, defected.
Instead of applause, Mr Matovic was faced with a revolt from his own ministers, who accused him of making a deal with Russia behind their backs, breaking ranks with the European bloc and succumbing to what his foreign minister, Ivan Korcok, called Russian. tool of hybrid warfare ”which“ casts doubt on working with the European Union ”.
“I thought people would be grateful to have brought Sputnik to Slovakia,” recalls Mr. Matovic in a recent interview. “Instead, we had a political crisis and I became an enemy of the people.”
Skepticism about Russia’s intentions with its vaccine runs deep in the former communist lands of Central and Eastern Europe.
Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte of Lithuania said in a tweet in February that Mr. Putin offered Sputnik V to the world as “a weapon to divide and rule”. And Poland has said it plans to buy Chinese vaccines, despite similar concerns about it, but it certainly won’t order Sputnik V.
A recent survey by research group Globsec found that among people wanting to be vaccinated, only 1% of Poles and Romanians and 2% of Lithuanians would choose Sputnik over American and European brands. Even in Hungary, the only member of the European Union to start vaccinating its citizens with the Russian product, only 4% want Sputnik V.
But in Slovakia, around 15% of people wishing to be vaccinated expressed a preference for the Russian vaccine, offering Moscow the opportunity to break out of the quarantine imposed by deep suspicions elsewhere.
The fact that Russia targeted Slovakia as a place to widen Sputnik’s narrow beachhead in Europe was evident long before Mr Matovic decided to order the vaccine.
Peter Koles, director of the Slovak Security Policy Institute, which tracks Russian disinformation, said this was clear from the shifting message conveyed by a plethora of anti-institutional media in Slovakia that regularly reflects Russia’s stance on the issue. world and are skeptical of their pro-Western government of their own country.
For most of the past year, before anyone even produced a vaccine, he said, these outlets have been speaking out against vaccination, promoting savage conspiracy theories about plans to injection of nanochips into people and creation of mutants.
“Suddenly, when Sputnik was announced by Putin, the narrative changed,” Koles said. While still skeptical of Western vaccines, the pro-Russian media has moved from denouncing any vaccination to praising Sputnik V as the savior of Slovakia.
Andrej Danko, a former speaker of the Slovak Parliament who is well known for his pro-Russia views, posted a video on Facebook in January saying he was ready to help negotiate a deal with Moscow for the delivery of Sputnik.
His speech appealed to the generally favorable Russian sentiments of many ordinary Slovaks, especially those of an anti-institutional lean.
Martin Smatana, a former health ministry official in Bratislava, said he was amazed at how many of his friends want the Russian vaccine and say, “Screw the system, use Sputnik”.
Mr Matovic, Prime Minister at the time of Mr Danko’s call, said he was fully aware that the Russian vaccine had not been authorized for use in Europe, but decided that “the only rule in a pandemic is health and life ”.
He said the idea to command Sputnik came to him after neighboring Hungary bought him. He said he contacted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who helped him contact Russia, which was eager to strike a deal.
When Mr Matovic came up with the idea of importing Sputnik into his cabinet in February, he was told to wait for the European Medicines Agency to give the green light.
He insisted anyway, deciding that if the government as a whole were to follow European rules, his health minister had the right to order Sputnik to deal with a health emergency.
Martin Klus, Secretary of State at the Foreign Ministry, said he heard about the delivery just hours before it arrived. “Sputnik is a vaccine that saves lives, but the problem is: how did it get to Slovakia?” he said in an interview.
The outcry that followed Sputnik’s arrival was swift and furious. To keep his fragile coalition government afloat, Matovic agreed on March 30 to step down as leader and negotiate jobs with his finance minister, a humiliating demotion.
Russia, Klus said, may not have intended to overthrow the government but, after years of trying to shatter European unity because of the sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, “the collapse of the government would be a great success for them. . “
In a report last week, the European Union’s foreign service said Russia’s drive to promote Sputnik abroad was aimed at “sowing distrust” of the European medicines regulator and fueling divisions.
In response, the Russian public investment agency, which heads Sputnik’s export campaign, lamented that the vaccine, which it calls “a vaccine for all mankind”, has been “unfortunate” victim. daily news attacks ”. On Friday, after Brazil raised concerns over Sputnik complaining of insufficient data, the vaccine developer in Moscow, the Gamaleya Institute, issued an angry statement complaining that “forces contrary to the ethics continually attack the Sputnik V vaccine for competitive and political reasons.
Difficult arguments in Slovakia over the vaccine peaked in April when the country’s drug regulatory agency claimed Mr Matovic had fallen in love with a Russian bait and switch. He said the vaccine doses sent to Slovakia at a cost of around $ 2 million differed from the favorably reviewed Sputnik V in a peer-reviewed February article in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.
The Slovak claim, denounced by Moscow as “sabotage”, cast doubt on Sputnik’s main selling point: a proven effectiveness rate of over 90% against Covid-19. The Lancet gave the vaccine 91.6% effectiveness in February, and Russian scientists have since claimed a “real” rate of 97.6%.
But the main problem with Sputnik has never been whether it works – most experts believe it – but the fact that Russia is not following procedure and not providing all the data necessary for foreign regulators to assess security. . The Slovak regulator made its damning statement not because it discovered specific problems with Sputnik but “because of lack of manufacturer data, inconsistencies in dosage forms and the inability to compare batches used in different studies and countries. “
The 200,000 doses that Russia issued in March were still not used at a pharmaceutical company in eastern Slovakia last week. But Mr Matovic said Russia has already returned the money Slovakia paid.
Pavol Babos, political analyst in Bratislava, declared that Mr. Matovic was “never pro-Russian” but “very naive”. Desperate to find a way to slow the pandemic and raise his own notes, the Prime Minister, added Mr. Babos, “fell into a trap set by Russian propaganda.”
But Mr Matovic scoffed at accusations that Moscow had played him to promote its own geopolitical agenda. The Russians, he said, “wanted to help, but instead of thanking them, we told them, ‘You are stupid and you are cheating on people all over the world.’
The most culpable, said Mr. Matovic, was the State Institute for Drug Control, which claimed that the batches of Sputnik V sent by Russia to Slovakia “did not have the same characteristics and properties” as the version V reviewed by The Lancet. This, he said, “was an extremely incorrect political statement.”
Zuzana Batova, the director of the institute, who has received death threats from aggressive Sputnik fans, declined to be interviewed, saying she did not want to spill oil on the fire.
The head of the Biomedical Research Center, which carried out a series of 14 tests in Slovakia on the Russian vaccine, said she had no concerns about how Sputnik V was working, but was troubled by the lack of transparency of Russia.
While the potential side effects of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been publicly documented in detail, the head of the center, Silvia Pastorekova, said: “We don’t know anything about the side effects of Sputnik.”
The Russian vaccine, she said, passed all of her team’s tests but failed to gain approval from the state regulator because more than three-quarters of the documents required to meet European standards had failed. not submitted or were incomplete.
“We are part of the European family and we have to accept the family rules,” said Pastorekova.
Monika pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels and Kristina Hamarova from Bratislava.