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Russia’s attempts to expand the Sputnik vaccine have sparked strife in Europe

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – When the Slovak prime minister welcomed a military plane carrying 200,000 doses of Sputnik V from Russia in March, he posed proudly for photos of the asphalt in front of crates full of what he expected to be his country’s medical rescue.

At the time, Slovakia had the highest per capita mortality rate in the world since Covid-19, and the arrival of the Russian vaccine gave a rare glimmer of hope. It has also offered major advantages for Russia: a small but symbolically important new market for its product in the European Union, which has so far refused to register the vaccine and is urging member states to withhold orders until approval is granted.

But Slovak leader Igor Matovic’s efforts soon exploded in his face, costing him his job and almost toppled the entire government – just three months after it adopted a new security strategy rooted in unequivocal support for NATO and Russia’s caution.

The highly pro-Western Slovak government, torn between its commitment to European rules and the despair of overcoming the health crisis, has been spasmed in a crisis for weeks.

It remains unclear whether Sputnik V, the world’s first registered vaccine, is the medical breakthrough announced last summer by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but has already proved extremely effective in spreading disorder and 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 devised as a “propaganda tool”. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, angry that European regulators are slowly endorsing Sputnik, has clashed with German leader Angela Merkel over the bloc’s vaccination program, which so far includes only Western vaccines.

However, Slovakia provides the most concrete example of how Russian vaccination diplomacy has side effects that can be highly toxic.

Mr Matovic’s decision to order two million doses of Sputnik V put the country at odds with the European Union and brought one of Eastern Europe’s brightest pro-Western governments to the brink of collapse as junior partners in a broken ruling coalition outraged. from Sputnik’s imports, escaped.

Instead of floating, Mr Matovic faced a revolt from his own ministers, who accused him of making a deal with Russia behind their backs, breaking with the European bloc and succumbing to what his foreign minister, Ivan Korchok, described as Russian A “hybrid war instrument” that “calls into question the work with the European Union”.

“I thought people would be grateful to bring Sputnik to Slovakia,” Mr Matovic recalled in a recent interview. “Instead, we got a political crisis and I became an enemy of the people.”

Skepticism about Russia’s intentions with its vaccine penetrates deep into the former communist lands of Eastern and Central Europe.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonite said in a tweet in February that Mr Putin was proposing Sputnik V to the world as a “weapon of division and rule”. And Poland has said it is considering buying Chinese vaccines, despite similar concerns, but will definitely not order Sputnik V.

A recent study by the research group Globsec found that among those wishing 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 a Russian product, only 4 percent want Sputnik V.

But in Slovakia, about 15 percent of those willing to be vaccinated have expressed a preference for the Russian vaccine, offering Moscow the opportunity to escape quarantine imposed by deep suspicion elsewhere.

The fact that Russia had targeted Slovakia as a place to expand Sputnik’s narrow beach in Europe was obvious long before Mr Matovic decided to order the vaccine.

Peter Koles, director of the Slovak Institute for Security Policy, which monitors Russian disinformation, said this was clear from a changing message pumped by many media outlets in Slovakia that anti-establishment reflect routine attitudes toward the world and are skeptical of their pro-Western government of one’s own country.

For most of last year, before anyone even produced a vaccine, he said these outlets opposed vaccination, promoting wild conspiracy theories about plans to inject nanochips into humans and create mutants.

“Suddenly, when Sputnik was announced by Putin, the story changed,” Mr Koles said. Although still skeptical of Western vaccines, pro-Russian media have shifted from all vaccinations to praising Sputnik V as Slovakia’s savior.

Andrei Danko, a former speaker of the Slovak parliament who is well known for his friendly views on Russia, posted a video on Facebook in January that he was ready to help the mediator in the deal with Moscow for the supply of Sputnik.

Its terrain appeals to the usual Russian sentiments of many ordinary Slovaks, especially those of the anti-establishment.

Martin Smatana, a former employee of the Ministry of Health in Bratislava, said he was amazed at how many of his friends wanted the Russian vaccine and said: “Fuck the system, use Sputnik.”

Mr Matovic, the prime minister during Mr Danko’s appeal, said he was aware that the Russian vaccine was not approved for use in Europe, but decided that “the only rule in a pandemic is health and life”.

He said the idea to order Sputnik came to him after neighboring Hungary bought it. He said he had contacted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had helped him contact Russia, which is eager to make a deal.

When Mr Matovic took the idea of ​​importing Sputnik into his office in February, he was told to wait until the European Medicines Agency gave the green light.

He continued to act independently, deciding that while the government as a whole must follow European rules, his health minister, who has since resigned, had the right to order Sputnik to deal with an urgent health situation.

Martin Kluss, secretary of state at the foreign ministry, said he had heard about the delivery just hours before he arrived. “Sputnik is a life-saving vaccine, but the problem is: How did you get to Slovakia?” He said in an interview.

The excitement after the arrival of Sputnik was fast and furious. To keep his fragile coalition government afloat, Mr Matovic agreed on March 30th to step down as leader and trade with his finance minister, a humiliating demotion.

Russia, Mr Kluss said, may not have intended to overthrow the government, but after years of trying to shatter European unity over sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, “to overthrow the government would be very success story for them. “

In a report last week, the European Union’s foreign service said Russia’s bid to promote Sputnik abroad was aimed at “sowing distrust” in the European medicines regulator and fueling divisions.

In response, Russia’s state investment agency, which is leading Sputnik’s export efforts, complained that the vaccine, which it hailed as a “vaccine for all mankind,” had fallen victim to “unfortunate daily information attacks.” On Friday, after Brazil expressed concern about Sputnik, complaining of inadequate data, the vaccine developer in Moscow, the Gamaleya Institute, issued an angry statement complaining that “unethical forces are constantly attacking the Sputnik V vaccine for competitive and political reasons.”

Test arguments in Slovakia for the vaccine peaked in April when the state drug agency said Mr Matovic had fallen for a Russian lure and change. According to him, the doses of vaccines sent to Slovakia at a cost of about $ 2 million differ from Sputnik V, which was positively reviewed in a February reviewed article in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

The Slovak claim, denounced by Moscow as “sabotage”, called into question Sputnik’s main selling point: a proven degree of efficiency of over 90 percent over Covid-19. The Lancet gave the vaccine 91.6% effectiveness in February, and since then Russian scientists have claimed that the “real world” percentage is 97.6%.

But the main problem with Sputnik has never been whether it works – most experts believe it works, and Russia’s repeated non-compliance with the procedure and the provision of all the data needed by foreign regulators to assess safety. The Slovak regulator made its condemnation not because it found any specific problems with Sputnik, but “because of the lack of data from the manufacturer, discrepancies in dosage forms and the inability to compare batches used in different studies and countries.”

The 200,000 doses Russia delivered in March had not yet been used by a pharmaceutical company in eastern Slovakia last week. But Mr Matovic said Russia had already returned the money paid by Slovakia.

Pavol Babos, a political analyst in Bratislava, said Mr Matovic was “never pro-Russian” but “very naive”. Desperate to slow the pandemic and raise his own declining ratings, the prime minister, Mr Babosh added, “fell into the 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 said, ‘You are stupid and cheating on people all over the world.’

Most to blame, Mr Matovic said, was the State Institute for Drug Control, which said that the Sputnik V batches sent from Russia to Slovakia “did not have the same characteristics and properties” as version V, reviewed by The Lancet. That, he said, was “an extremely incorrect political statement.”

Zuzana Batova, director of the institute, who has received death threats from aggressive Sputnik fans, declined to be interviewed, saying she did not want to add fuel to the fire.

The head of the Biomedical Research Center, which conducted a series of 14 tests for the Russian vaccine in Slovakia, said it was not worried about whether Sputnik V was working, but was concerned about Russia’s lack of transparency.

Although the potential side effects of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been publicly documented in detail, the center’s head, Silvia Pastorekova, said: “We know nothing about the side effects of Sputnik.”

According to her, the Russian vaccine has passed all the tests of its team, but has not received approval from the state regulator, as more than three quarters of the documents required to comply with European standards were either not submitted or were incomplete.

“We are part of the European family and we have to accept the family rules,” Ms Pastorekova said.

Monica Prontsuk reports from Brussels and Kristina Hamarova from Bratislava contributed.

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