Slovakia’s foreign and education ministers have become the latest cabinet members to resign amid a deepening crisis over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the prime minister Igor Matovič’s decision to buy doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Ivan Korčok and Branislav Gröhling, of the rightwing Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), announced they were stepping down on Wednesday, bringing the number of ministers who have resigned to six and placing Matovič hunder intense pressure to follow suit.
Slovakia has a daily Covid death rate of 13 per million inhabitants, the third highest in the world. Matovič is accused of gross mismanagement, and his decision to buy Sputnik V shots has proved particularly divisive. SaS has called it a “tool of hybrid war”.
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 go. The prime minister has said he is prepared to step down but would like to keep a senior ministerial post, which his three coalition partners have ruled out.
Matovič bypassed his coalition partners to order the Sputnik shot, which has not been cleared for use by the EU’s drugs regulator. Slovakia, the second country after Hungary to order the Russian vaccine, has so far received 200,000 doses but has yet to start administering them pending domestic test results.
Several EU member states have expressed an interest in using the Russian vaccine, and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is preparing to inspect production sites in Russia, but the regulator’s chief said this week that the company representing Sputnik was still to answer its questions.
Russia has struggled to increase vaccine output since the start of the year. The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said production had not been enough to satisfy domestic demand at the beginning of the year, but had since been increased.
“Now we’ve managed to increase production, the growth rate will be ensured in the coming months and domestic needs, an absolute priority, will be met,” he said. About 4.3 million of Russia’s 144 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated.
State leaders in the formerly socialist eastof Germany have been particularly vocal in their calls for the national regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, to authorise use of the Russian vaccine.
Bodo Ramelow, the leftwing premier of Thuringia, said he would “personally plead for the government to prepare a preliminary agreement with Sputnik V”.
Even conservative politicians have refrained from politicising the Russian jab. The German health minister, Jens Spahn, has suggested Berlin could unilaterally clear Sputnik if the EMA fails to approve it. “I am indeed in favour of us doing something on a national level if the EU doesn’t,” he said.
Politicians from Spahn’s Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) have endorsed a proposal by the Russian pharmaceutical company R-Pharm to start producing the vaccine at a factory in the southern German town of Illertissen.
R-Pharma’s 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.