Slovak coalition in turmoil over Russian vaccine purchase

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Slovakia’s four-party coalition was in turmoil on Wednesday after Prime Minister Igor Matovic bypassed his partners and ordered in shipments of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

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The coalition has frequently disagreed over how to tackle the pandemic, and Matovic made his decision despite demands from his party’s partners not to use the Russian vaccine until it is registered by the European Union’s medicines watchdog EMA.

Slovakia is the second EU country after Hungary to buy Sputnik V vaccine, whose maker has not filed for registration with EMA but has been offering it to individual EU members.

A junior partner in Slovakia’s coalition, Za Ludi (For the People), threatened to quit the government over the matter while another, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), called for a reshuffle of the cabinet formed after an election a year ago.

A military plane was sent to Moscow at the weekend to bring back 200,000 shots of Sputnik V, the first batch of what Matovic said would be 2 million in total. He also went to the eastern city of Kosice for the arrival of the shipment, angering his coalition partners.

“I am against an early election...but reconstruction of the cabinet is a solution that may calm the situation down,” SaS leader Richard Sulik said live on television after he and Za Ludi leader Veronika Remisova met President Zuzana Caputova on Wednesday.

Sulik noted that government reshuffles in the past had included a change of prime minister.

Za Ludi’s leaders debated leaving the cabinet but had not come to any decision, Slovak media reported. Standing beside Sulik, Remisova said reshuffling the cabinet was an option.

Matovic defended his decision on Facebook.

“The Russians are not doing anything, and our (coalition) partners deployed Sputnik V as the heaviest weapon to break up their own government,” he said.

Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, nominated by SaS, said on Tuesday the purchase put in question the EU and NATO country’s position on the international scene.

“Sputnik V is not just a vaccine - it is a tool in a hybrid war,” he said.

Slovakia’s hospitals have recently been stretched by record numbers of coronavirus patients, around 4,000. The country of 5.5 million has reported 7,489 coronavirus deaths.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Hugh Lawson