Russian Vaccine Row Hits Slovak Cabinet as EU Virus Woes Deepen

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The collapse of Slovakia’s government intensified over the prime minister’s decision to buy Covid-19 vaccines from Russia, raising pressure on him to resign.

Underscoring the political fallout of Europe’s stumbling inoculation campaign, two ministers from the Freedom and Solidarity party quit Premier Igor Matovic’s 16-member cabinet on Wednesday. It brought the total departures to six following his announcement this month that he agreed to buy 2 million shots of Russia’s Sputnik V without consulting his ruling partners.

Matovic himself has said he may also resign, which would torpedo the entire government. He has demanded that he gain a seat in any new cabinet, which the ruling parties want to create to avoid early elections.

“Politics also brings moments like this, when along with other colleagues, we’re leaving the government,” Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, a member of Freedom and Solidarity, said upon his resignation.

The crisis highlights the political stakes of the EU’s stuttering vaccination rollout, which has triggered voter anger after significantly falling behind similar efforts in the U.S. and the U.K. In another setback, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union crashed to its worst results since World War II in this month’s regional elections as voters punished her party for the slow pace of immunizations.

Matovic, who unexpectedly won 2020 elections on an anti-corruption platform, has repeatedly sought outside-the-box solutions to the pandemic, launching the EU’s only effort to test his country’s entire adult population last year.

After the euro-area nation of 5.5 million was initially among the most successful globally in containing contagion, the testing plan came and went. Now Slovakia is suffering from one of the deadliest outbreaks in Europe since fall, while it has vaccinated about 7.2% of its population.

That has hammered Matovic’s popularity. Then the Sputnik deal drew a rebuke from President Zuzana Caputova and raised concerns that it could undermine the foreign-policy orientation of the EU and NATO nation.

The leader of Freedom and Solidarity, Richard Sulik, who like many other right-of-center politicians bristles at the prospect of Russia regaining influence in former communist countries, resigned as economy minister on Monday and said a wider cabinet reshuffle was needed to keep the coalition in power.

The ruling alliance had been continually rocked by infighting and personal animosities since it took power while still managing to enact a wide anti-corruption sweep of the police, judiciary and business circles.

Before Matovic’s announcement, Hungary was the first EU nation to skirt the bloc’s regulators to grant emergency approval to Sputnik V.

The decision by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, raised concern over EU states abandoning solidarity in working together to inoculate their populations. But it also propelled Hungary to the top of the EU leader board in getting needles in arms.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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