Slovak PM’s Sputnik Procurement Erodes Solidarity with Ukraine and EU
Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic offered the Ukrainian Transcarpathian region in return for Russian vaccines prompting conversations about warming relations between Bratislava and Moscow. Matovic is considering resignation amidst coalition criticisms.
In a radio interview on March 4th, Matovic said in return for the Sputnik V vaccine he would give Kremlin the Ukrainian Zakarpatiia region, which has a 95-kilometer-border with Slovakia. Matovic disregarded the security and EU concerns associated with Russian jab, purchasing two million doses to be delivered by June.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned Matovic’s insensitive comment, reinforcing that no external power can determine Ukrainian territorial integrity under international law. In turn, Matovic issued a Twitter apology for “undermining” Ukrainian efforts in the international community to regain control of Donbas and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
The Slovak prime minister kept the deal a secret until the first shipment with 200,000 doses arrived at the Kosice Airport on March 1st. Matovic disregarded any disagreements voiced by his coalition and refused to wait for the EU approval by the European Medicines Agency. Matovic’s coalition originally rejected the procurement of Russian jabs in late February.
On March 23, Matovic announced that he would resign amidst a lack of communication criticisms relating to secret Sputnik V procurement. Earlier last week, Slovak Minister of Health Marek Krajci resigned after Slovakia’s four-party governing coalition condemned his management of the pandemic and Sputnik V crisis.
Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok criticized the vaccine purchase, labeling it as a “political tool” aimed to divide the society and distance them from full European integration. Ukrainian officials voiced a similar concern, banning the jab to prevent Russian state propaganda against the West. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, a company responsible for Sputnik V distribution abroad, immediately announced their growing cooperation with Slovakia, Hungary, SanMarino, Serbia, Montenegro, Republika Srpska, and Belarus.
Slovak-Ukrainian relations developed in the late 1990s after Bratislava turned towards Western integration in 1998. In the early 2000s, the Dzurinda governments continued to neglect relations with Eastern Europe, focusing on NATO and EU negotiations. In 2006, Robert Fico’s government, like most of the West, underwent the period of “Partnership” supporting Viktor Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution. By 2010, Slovakia joined the “Ukraine fatigue” period due to disillusionment with Ukrainian political instability between Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych.
Slovakia began to slow trade relations with Russia before the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Although blaming Ukraine for the gas crisis in 2009, Slovakia limited the dependence on Russian gas by cutting all supplies by 40% to 50%. Despite economic disaffiliation from Russia, 2018 polling showed that 41% supported Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. Only 10% of surveyed Slovaks noted the importance of building relations with other Eastern European nations. In 2019, Ukrainian think tanks expressed concern with Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini who remained silent on the Ukrainian issue.
Slovakia continues to be an important trade partner to Ukraine constituting 65% of gas imports to Ukraine especially after Ukraine launched an independent gas transportation company in 2020. However, compared to
Matovic’s recent comment mirrors Fico’s flirtatious relations with Russia. In 2014, Fico criticized the EU sanctions, announcing that they will be harmful to the Slovak economy and gas supply to Europe. Defending his argument, Fico critiqued France for continuing to sell military vessels to Russia and the construction of South Stream. France and other EU states shortly postponed these agreements. Two years later, Fico augmented his argument by suggesting that Russian implements more of Minsk Agreements than Ukraine.
Slovakia’s foreign policy is “self-promoting” and seeks to maintain beneficial economic relations between the EU and Russia. Some Slovak officials seek to reestablish “self-confidence and regain the respect of international players.” Ukrainian foreign policy falls short of recognizing the importance of Bratislava in the West, often relying on Brussels, Berlin, and Warsaw. Russia, in turn, offers international recognition and shows appeals to pan-Slavism.
Earlier in the pandemic, Matovic’s government finally expelled three Russian diplomats from Slovak territories. In August, Russian authorities were linked to submitting fake IDs for Schengen visa consideration at the Slovak Consulate in St Petersburg, prompting Slovak diplomatic response. Unlike other EU member states, Slovakia did not banish diplomats in solidarity with the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergey Skripal investigation in 2018. Former Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak announced that Slovakia will wait for “reactions from the Russian Federation” to take further action.
EU states of Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary often pursuit a multi-vector foreign policy to benefit both from the West and Russia. Sputnik V procurement disrupts EU solidarity regarding Russia’s power in Europe as five central European and Baltic countries condemn the EU for unequal vaccine distribution. Matovic’s distasteful remark toward Ukrainian territorial integrity is only the beginning of Russia’s destabilization of Western institutions.
Image Source: DW