Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are once again showing disregard for European solidarity, negotiating deals for Eastern vaccines, even at the price of sparking government crises. Meanwhile, China and Russia are attempting to undermine confidence in vaccines manufactured in the West as they promote their own vaccines.
By Eva Kubániová (investigace.cz), Peter Kapitán (ICJK), Gabriella Horn (atlatszo.hu)
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Slovakia, with a limited number of infections and just a few deaths, was heralded as a success story. After this initial victory, the government in Bratislava, instead of preparing for the inevitable next wave, neglected to implement policies that would further help fight the disease’s spread and made many controversial decisions that turned the country upside down. Chaotic crisis management, lax measures, and the promotion of “miraculous” fast solutions over the last nine months have plunged the coalition government into turmoil.
Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s recent ordering of two million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia was mired in secrecy, much like the nationwide mass screening program implemented in the autumn, when the public was also left in the dark about the decision-making process. Matovič first mentioned the possibility of buying the Russian vaccine in mid-February in a Facebook post in which he asked his followers whether they would be willing to get the Russian jab even if it hadn’t been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Matovič’s turning to Facebook to deal with public policy issues surprised his coalition partners and sparked new tensions. “The people of Slovakia cannot be guinea pigs,” said Veronika Remišová, leader of the smallest coalition party, Za ľudí (For People). Matovič replied that he would never put politics over the health of the people.
One of the Slovak prime minister’s arguments for using Sputnik V before EMA approval is that it is already being used in Hungary. The Hungarian pharmaceutical authority gave it the nod on January 20, 2021. Two days later, Hungary signed a contract to procure the Russian vaccine for 1 million people in three stages: for 300,000 in the first month, for 500,000 in the second, and for 200,000 in the third. On February 12, elderly people who had registered for the vaccine began receiving the Russian shot.
In early March, Matovič announced, again through Facebook, that “a day of good surprises awaits us tomorrow.” The next day the public learned from the media that a Slovak military aircraft was on its way from Moscow, on a secret flight. A few minutes after it landed, Matovič and Minister of Health Marek Krajčí held a press conference, standing in front of the plane loaded with crates full of Sputnik V vaccines.
PONUKA, KTORÁ SA NEODMIETA
Včera neskoro večer som dostal od výrobcu vakcíny Sputnik V oficiálnu ponuku, že v situácii,…
Slovakia has ordered two millions vaccines at a price of 17 euros for two doses, the regular market price. According to József Berényi, a former Hungarian minority politician in Slovakia and a current advisor to Matovič, the deal was consulted with the Hungarian government, which, however, did not play an active role in the actual transaction. “We obtained know-how and contacts from [Hungarian Foreign Minister] Péter Szijártó, but as far as I know, there was no further coordination,” he said. Atlatszo.hu filed an information request at the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about this matter and about potential cooperation on vaccine procurement between Hungary and the other V4 countries, but no reply has come so far.
The Slovak government has also not replied to the Investigative Centre of Jan Kuciak’s questions about the Sputnik V contract and how it came about. The details of the deal – the delivery schedule, whether the price communicated by the government is real, and what the penalties will be if the Russian Federation does not deliver the promised doses – thus remain unclear.
The deal came as a surprise not only to the public, but also to the coalition partners of Matovič’s Ordinary People party (OĽaNO). The minister of foreign affairs did not even know about the move. The warm welcome extended to the Russian vaccine has been criticized by President Zuzana Čaputová and two smaller coalition parties, SaS (Freedom and Solidarity) and Za ľudí, whose MP Tomáš Valášek quit the coalition as a result. Several other MPs declared they have been considering doing the same.
The two parties demanded a reshuffling of the cabinet and the resignation of the minister of health for mismanaging Slovakia’s pandemic response. They also requested Matovič step down as prime minister. After a few turbulent days of negotiations, on Thursday, March 11, Matovič announced that the minister of health would indeed quit. He described the resignation as the “most absurd in history,” words that resparked a crisis that had seemed to be settled.
Propaganda in real life
According to a mid-February survey conducted by the Focus agency, a majority of Slovaks, 53 percent, were open to receiving the Sputnik V vaccination. A report by the Bratislava-based think-tank GLOBSEC has shown that Slovakia is the country “with the highest degree of proneness to believe in conspiracy theories in the CEE region.” Thus, the level of acceptance of the Sputnik V vaccine is not that surprising.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine has long been subject to disinformation campaigns, as has the Pfizer vaccine. Russian information services have been identified as the originators of these campaigns. Their aim is to erode the willingness of the population to accept the Western vaccines and increase the potential for the population to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, which would represent a great ideological victory for the Russian administration,” states Miroslava Sawiris from GLOBSEC.
But the fact is that Russia has promised to supply two millions doses of Sputnik V to Slovakia, while, based on the EU contract, Slovakia had obtained 691,651 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca by the end of February.
Many conspiracy-theory websites and social media accounts are closely following the situation. Matej Spišák, an analyst from Infosecurity, an NGO that monitors the conspiracy scene, notes that such websites’ messages about vaccines have become increasingly ambiguous:
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, or rather since the beginning of wider debates about possible treatment, disinformation sites have disseminated various types of false information and conspiracy theories. It has often been possible to see texts about how harmful vaccines are, how many diseases they can cause, how they will damage and alter human DNA, and so on. At the same time, however, most well-known disinformation sites are pro-Russian. They are now in a very interesting situation. On the one hand, they are fighting vaccines and questioning COVID-19, but on the other hand, Slovakia has bought a sample from Russia. Unlike the Russian vaccine, which our disinformation sites reported on particularly positively, the remaining vaccines were portrayed as problematic.”
This situation has severely limited the maneuvering space of conspiracy websites. Rather than writing about particular vaccines, they either focus on stories that deny COVID-19 as a whole or try to persuade followers that a cure already exists but a mysterious “they” is not willing to share it with other people. There are also rare examples of genuinely pro-Sputnik V propaganda.
Thus, most disinformation sites take a reserved, strictly informative approach to covering the Russian vaccine. Many of them, such as the highly popular Infovojna or the orthodox Slovanské noviny, continue mainly to fight against vaccines as a whole or deny the seriousness of the pandemic.
“It is important to realize that anti-vaccination campaigns were here long before the pandemic began, and with its advent, this topic has intensified in disinformation outlets,” states Miroslava Sawiris from GLOBSEC.
Sputnik V rules from Prague Castle
The same weekend Slovak prime minister Igor Matovič welcomed the Russian aircraft filled with Sputnik V vaccines, a storm was beginning to brew over Prague about using the unregistered Russian vaccine in the Czech Republic. Jiří Ovčáček, spokesman of the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, immediately responded to Matovič’s move by writing on his official Twitter account: “Yes, courageous decisions, like this one, save lives. Ideological blindness kills.”
Ano, odvážná rozhodnutí, jako toto, zachraňují lidské životy. Ideologická zaslepenost zabíjí. pic.twitter.com/W0rzlFP2hI
— Jiří Ovčáček (@PREZIDENTmluvci) March 1, 2021
While the aircraft loaded with doses of Sputnik V was touching down in Košice, the Czech president was giving an exclusive interview to the private Czech television station CNN Prima News. Well-known for his good relationship with the Russian president, Zeman confirmed that he had sent a letter to Vladimir Putin, requesting a shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine.
“After agreeing with the prime minister [Andrej Babiš], I wrote to President Putin requesting a shipment of Sputnik V. If I am well informed, our request will be fulfilled. . . . We will be warned against using Russian or Chinese vaccines, but it’s good to say that vaccines have no ideologies,” said Zeman in the interview.
Zeman, who is 76, has already received the Pfizer vaccine, but mentioned that he would be willing to get the Russian jab because of its efficiency of around 92 percent.
What exactly Zeman wrote to Putin is unknown, even to Czech diplomats. The weekly Respekt has reported that Zeman sent his request directly to the Kremlin without consulting the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The details of the Czech-Russian deal are known only to a very limited group of people consisting of Zeman’s inner circle.
Zeman, like Matovič, said that he doesn’t insist on the EMA’s authorization, noting that he would be satisfied if Sputnik V was registered with the Czech State Institute for Drug Control. Circumventing European approval by relying solely on a national Czech body for approval is not likely. As the Czech Republic is an EU member, all vaccines must be first approved by the EMA. The Ministry of Health, however, may grant an exception to this rule, as happened in Slovakia.
The Czech minister of health, Jan Blatný, is standing in the way of Zeman’s plans to deploy Sputnik V in the Czech Republic. He has already declared he will not give approval to any vaccine not registered by the EMA. “It’s one of the things I won’t change my mind on. As long as I am the minister of health, we will not be vaccinated in the Czech Republic with a vaccine that has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency,” said Blatný in an interview for Czech Radio in February.
In the CNN Prima News interview, Zeman mentioned that Blatný is “burnt out” and suggested the health minister’s replacement. At a cabinet press conference held a few days later, however, a vigorous Blatný confirmed the Czech Republic had enough vaccines and called upon hospitals to not keep second doses for later. “I guarantee that there will be enough second doses in the Czech Republic; there is no need to worry. In March there will be as many doses of the vaccine as have come since vaccination began, and in April there will be as many doses as in the first quarter,” emphasized the minister, whose goal is to inoculate around 35,000 people daily in March and 100,000 daily in April.
Blatný also added that the use of unregistered vaccines would pose economic problems, as health insurance companies cannot reimburse them.
Czech experts also share the health minister’s view that there are enough vaccines. As Jan Trnka, head of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry, explained in an interview with Czech radio, “We shouldn’t get into situations in which we say we need unregistered medicines. The medicines we use should be approved. Otherwise, we can give medicines to people which either harm them or don’t help them. According to data from the Ministry of Health, we have 250,000 unused vaccines. So it doesn’t seem the problem is a lack of vaccines. The much bigger problem is that those vaccines don’t go to the oldest people, who are at the highest risk.”
Jakub Dvořáček, executive director of the Association of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry, in an interview with Czech Radio, stated: “I’m sure that we have enough vaccines in the Czech Republic. Even if Russian and Chinese vaccines are registered in the EU, we will be talking about April and May of this year. And by that time there will be such a large number of vaccines in the Czech Republic that our only problem will be how to get them to the target groups.”
A few days after the cabinet press conference, President Zeman openly declared that he wanted Blatný to resign from his post as health minister along with the minister of foreign affairs, Tomáš Petříček. Both Blatný and Petříček have criticized Sputnik V. The director of the State Institute for Drug Control, Irena Storová, is also hindering Zeman’s plans for Sputnik V, as she has refused to approve the Russian vaccination. In a March 10 interview with Parlamentní listy, a website that tends to promote a pro-Russian narrative, Zeman referred to Storová and Blatný as “obstacles.”
Zeman was much less diplomatic in this interview than he had been a week before. He publicly blamed both ministers and the director of the State Institute for Drug Control for coronavirus deaths. “If millions of people are vaccinated with Russian and Chinese vaccines, then the two I was talking about [Blatný and Storová] are guilty, and our people will be dying for nothing from now on,” claimed the Czech president.
But because the Czech president has no power to force the ministers’ resignations, Zeman’s words were directed at the prime minister, Andrej Babiš. On the one hand, Zeman knows that the prime minister is solely responsible for the ministers’ fates, but on the other hand he said if Babiš will not replace the minister of health it will negatively affect the relationship between the two leaders.
Babiš refused to comment on Zeman´s announcement. “It is the opinion of the president,” he said to Czech Television. Prague Castle’s request is pending. For now.
In the meantime, the EMA announced it had started a rolling review of Sputnik V. In response, a fraggled Matovič criticized the head of the EMA on Facebook: “Dear Christa [Wirthumer-Hoche], we would all be happy if you change the EMA’s working hours to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – and took 3 weeks instead of 3 months to approve new vaccines.”
Včera šéfka EMA (Európskej liekovej agentúry) Christa Wirthumerová-Hocheová odkázala nám – členským štátom EÚ,…
When investigace.cz asked the EMA for a response to this post, Violeta Pashova, the agency’s press officer, responded: “In the last few months, the EMA has of course seen the intense debate on the duration of the EU approval process taking place in the public arena, with some calling for a speedier approval of vaccines while others were concerned that development was going too fast to ensure safety. We have kept our course and have been guided by the strength of the scientific evidence, and nothing else. On top of this, European citizens have told us they want fast approval, but they also want a thorough evaluation of the benefits and the risks of the vaccine, so that they can be confident it is safe, effective, and of high quality.”
The leader and the outsider
Hungary is the unquestioned leader in pushing unapproved Eastern vaccines on its own citizens. Besides Sputnik V, which is already in use, the Hungarian National Institute of Pharmacy and Food Health also approved the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine on January 29, after a government decree relaxed the control rules. Five million doses of this vaccine are expected to arrive within the next few months. Hungary received its first shipment of the Chinese vaccine, 550,000 doses, on February 16. On February 24, general practitioners began administering the jab to the elderly.
In comparison, Poland, for a change, is an outsider among the V4 countries. The only vaccines in use are from Western companies, and at the moment there are no official plans to change this situation. Chinese vaccines, however, made headlines two weeks ago, after the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, made a surprising announcement on March 1. A press release about his conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping mentioned that they spoke about the possibility of ordering Chinese vaccines. Such plans were quickly denied by both government spokesman Piotr Müller and the minister of health, Adam Niedzielski, but some media outlets speculated that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is open to this idea and used the president to test public sentiment.
If this is the case, we shouldn’t expect any more talks about Chinese or Russian vaccines in Poland. According to a poll published a few days later by the Polish tabloid Super Express, 74 percent of respondents did not want the government to buy vaccines from China. Even more, 81 percent, were against purchasing vaccines from Russia.
Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, China provided huge amounts of personal protective equipment – face masks, gloves, and so forth – to countries around the world, including those of the V4. This was the first step in a PR campaign meant to portray the Chinese regime in a positive light, as a “bringer of help.” Later, China and Russia began engaging in “vaccine diplomacy” in an effort to present themselves as saviours through the export of vaccines.
Miroslava Sawiris from GLOBSEC has assessed the situation in the following words: “In this respect, these information wars can be seen as the Second Cold War, seeking to gain the people of democracies by portraying Western vaccines as ineffective or dangerous, by questioning established processes (approval of vaccines by the EMA) and by promoting their solutions. As a result, these information operations are successful because, in order to achieve national polarization and chaos, or its equivalent at the European level, it is enough to erode the confidence of the population and exploit the vulnerability of governments facing enormous pressure during a pandemic. This vaccine diplomacy from Russia and China has been very successful not only in Slovakia, but also in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc that are still vulnerable to such operations.”
Dominik Istrate, an analyst from the Political Capital think-tank, agrees: “Vaccine diplomacy efforts in Central Europe are already an integral part of Russia’s and China’s foreign policy strategies. These efforts of Eastern authoritarian powers have two purposes: to change the European image and political perception of these countries, as Russia and China are two states whose international perceptions have deteriorated considerably in recent years, in particular because of political persecution, undermining democracy, and systemic human rights violations. The second goal is to undermine confidence in the EU and to dismantle EU unity. The EU’s joint vaccine procurement project has fallen far short of expectations, and this is being used by Central European illiberal politicians (primarily the Hungarian government) to pursue their own domestic policy goals. While vaccinating its own population is a huge challenge, Moscow supplies hundreds of millions of vaccines to more than 40 countries, which play an important role in Russia’s strategic foreign policy.”
❗️ Sputnik V: Ruská vakcína od #Covid19 #SputnikV byla schválena již v 50 zemích
? Официальный представитель МИД России…
For example, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Slovakia is investing huge efforts in promoting Sputnik V on Facebook. Even though its page does not have a large impact, with around 30,000 followers, posts supporting Sputnik V are extremely popular. One featuring a picture of Putin has received 1,400 likes. The embassy also shares misleading information; one of its most recent posts states that Sputnik V has been authorized in 50 countries around the world. Slovakia is included on the list, even though the vaccine has not yet been approved for use in Slovakia or the EU.
The controversy surrounding Sputnik V has resulted in one of the most prominent pro-Russian Slovak influencers, Ľuboš Blaha, a member of parliament for Smer, the party of former prime minister Robert Fico, having a brief change of heart. Even though Blaha dedicated 2020 to fighting the current government online, he wrote a Facebook post complimenting Matovič when Sputnik V was bought. The deal with the Russian government has also been lauded by far-right Slovak politicians known for making anti-Western and pro-Russian statements.
“And perhaps this is one of the reasons why Russia has postponed the registration of the vaccine with the European Medicines Agency for so long. In propaganda Moscow has long presented the West as a failure, decadent, declining, while Russia is portrayed as the last refuge of traditional values. In a situation where Western companies are unable to supply vaccines to the countries of the European Union, Russia comes on the scene, secretly negotiating deliveries of vaccines with individual countries – for example, Hungary and Slovakia,” notes Matej Spišák from Infosecurity.
“China and Russia are seeking to undermine confidence in vaccines manufactured in the West in parallel with the promotion of their own vaccines,” agrees Dominik Istrate. “The aim of these disinformation campaigns is to undermine public confidence in the crisis management capabilities and institutional systems of the EU and the governments of the Member States, making it more difficult to control the epidemic.”
Istrate stresses that the Hungarian and Slovak governments have already broken an informal consensus by buying vaccines from the East outside of the EU procurement program. Although there have been no legal impediments hindering the Orbán government or the Matovič cabinet from purchasing Russian or Chinese vaccines, and in the name of saving lives governments must, regardless of geopolitical concerns, consider all possible options for procuring vaccines, some see such behavior as a disregard for European solidarity. Istrate emphasizes that while Central European countries are already using the Russian vaccine, the EMA is warning against national licensing, at least for now, although international studies have demonstrated it to be a safe and effective vaccine.
According to Istrate, one of the most likely goals is to break the EU’s disciplinary sanctions. Since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, the EU has regularly expanded and renewed sanctions against Moscow, which remain a significant political and economic problem for the Russian leadership. As the analyst from the Political Capital says, “It is no coincidence that Vladimir Putin already mentioned a ‘sanctions moratorium’ at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, and the image of ‘unfair’ sanctions is a recurring element in Russian state propaganda. Nevertheless, I believe that this is an extremely long-term goal: the Orbán government (and, under Robert Fico, the former Slovak government) has also criticized the sanctions regime while voting in favor of its renewal. Yet it is still not expected that the Hungarian or even the Slovak government will be the ones crossing this red line. However, a minor victory for the Kremlin is also a victory, such as the fact that while Peter Szijjártó, as EU Foreign Minister, was discussing the purchase of Sputnik in Moscow, the Hungarian government was silent on the excessive use of violence by the Russian armed forces and show trials against Navalny and his supporters.”
The big fuss over Russian and Chinese vaccines can distract the public from a grim fact: numbers of new COVID-19 cases are high in all V4 countries, skyrocketing in Poland and Hungary. It seems that governments should focus on more pressing issues, as it looks unlikely that we will be saved by Eastern knights in shining armour.
Urszula Kifer from Fundacja Reporterow contributed to this story.
Eva is a journalist working for investigace.cz based in Prague. Investigace.cz is NGO covering organized crime topics and the only Czech partner of OCCRP. She works on projects connected to Slovakia.
Peter Kapitán is a Slovak journalist at Ján Kuciak Investigative Center (ICJK)
She has been working as a journalist and news editor for over 20 years now, at News Network Ltd., RTL Klub television and a number of national print publications. Freelancing for atlatszo.hu from the beginning, she joined full time in 2019. Based in Budapest, Hungary.