Slovak Foreign Affairs and Education ministers became the latest cabinet members to resign amid a growing crisis over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s decision to buy doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.
Ivan Korčok and Branislav Gröhling, of the right-wing Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), announced their resignations on Wednesday, bringing the number of resigning ministers to six and putting Matovič under intense pressure to follow suit.
Slovakia has a daily Covid death rate of 13 per million population, the third highest in the world. Matovič is accused of gross mismanagement, and his decision to buy Sputnik V projectiles has proved particularly divisive. SaS called it a “tool of hybrid warfare”.
The country’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, has said it is essential that Matovič resign, and opinion polls suggest more than 80% of Slovaks want him to leave. The prime minister said he was ready to step down, but wanted to keep a senior ministerial post, which his three coalition partners ruled out.
Matovič bypassed his coalition partners to order the firing of Sputnik, which was not cleared for use by the European drug regulator. Slovakia, the second country after Hungary to order the Russian vaccine, has so far received 200,000 doses but has not yet started administering them pending national test results.
Several EU member states have expressed interest in using the Russian vaccine and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is preparing to inspect production sites in Russia, but the chief regulator said this week that the company representing Sputnik still had not answered his questions.
Russia has struggled to increase vaccine production since the start of the year. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said output was not enough to meet domestic demand at the start of the year, but has since increased.
“Now that we have succeeded in increasing production, the growth rate will be assured in the coming months and domestic needs, a top priority, will be met,” he said. About 4.3 million of Russia’s 144 million people have been fully immunized.
The heads of state of former socialist eastern Germany have been particularly vocal in their calls to the national regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, to allow the use of the Russian vaccine.
Bodo Ramelow, the left-wing prime minister of Thuringia, said he would “personally advocate for the government to prepare a preliminary deal with Sputnik V”.
Even conservative politicians have refrained from politicizing the Russian jab. German Health Minister Jens Spahn has suggested Berlin could unilaterally wipe out Sputnik if the EMA does not approve it. “I am indeed in favor of us doing something at national level if the EU does not do it,” he said.
Politicians from Spahn’s Bavarian Party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have approved a proposal by Russian pharmaceutical company R-Pharm to start producing the vaccine at a plant in the town of Illertissen in southern L ‘Germany.
R-Pharma director Alexander Bykov said the company could start manufacturing Sputnik V in Bavaria from June or July if it had been cleared by the EMA by then.