By means of soft power, hybrid methods of war and special services, Russia has just won a new round of confrontation with the EU – caused a political crisis in Slovakia and created the possibility of the return to power of pro-Russian forces. Of course, this is just one of many rounds in a long duel, but who knows what long-term consequences it will have?
For instance, Russia has once provided significant financial and broad technical assistance to supporters of the UK’s exit from the EU. Of course, the Brexit phenomenon had several different reasons, but it is not known for sure whether those in favour of the UK’s exit would have received such a large number of votes without the funds and IT specialists provided by the Russian intelligence. Both official London and Brussels unanimously react harshly to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, so Moscow has failed to quarrel them. However, the UK’s departure from the EU has weakened the Union – and it was a great success for Kremlin.
Should Scotland and/or Northern Ireland decide to hold referendums on the worthwhileness of splitting from the UK, there is no doubt that Russian intelligence will make every effort to provide “comprehensive assistance” to supporters of the territories’ independence from Britain. Whatever sincere motives and compelling arguments these activists use, the Kremlin will pursue its own goal of weakening the UK. If Moscow has bad relations with London today, it has to wait for the new parliamentary elections, and if Edinburgh and Belfast appear instead of one London, the Kremlin will sharply increase the space for its maneuver to achieve its own interests.
In the current round – in Slovakia – Russia has successfully used the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic, which caused a particularly severe course of the disease in the country (compared to other EU members) and put the Slovak health care system on the verge of collapse. It came to the point that Slovak doctors, not being able to hospitalize everyone, began sending small batches of patients to neighboring countries. One of the worst statistics in the EU on COVID-19 and mortality, as well as low vaccination rates, have created an extremely tense atmosphere in Slovakia (351,000 cases of infection and 9.2 thousand deaths per 5.4 million inhabitants). The Russian Federation took advantage of these difficult circumstances.
In December 2020, the Slovak government ordered 3.5 million doses of vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. In January 2021, Bratislava additionally ordered another 4 million doses of mRNA vaccines. This amount would be enough to vaccinate the entire adult population. However, the government ordered another 3.6 million doses of the AstraZeneca vector vaccine. That is, in total, Bratislava ordered 11.1 million doses of three vaccines approved in the EU (out of four vaccines purchased by the EC). Thus, the Russian vector vaccine was completely unnecessary for the Slovaks, however, in February, the possibility regarding the feasibility of additional purchase of Sputnik V was launched into the government environment.
Moscow does not have the capacity and resources to impose its position on the United Europe on one issue or another, but at the bilateral level it is much easier for the Kremlin to push its interests by working directly (including by covert means) with national governments. Defending its interests at the bilateral level, the Russian Federation uses a well-established scheme:
• activating agents of influence (moreover, in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans there are intelligence networks since the communist era);
• launching the process of forming the necessary public opinion (through paid publications and the work of secretly Kremlin-funded pro-Russian media);
• carrying out deliberate multi-step corruption of politicians, officials and bureaucrats, as well as bribery of experts (this time – medical).
In early February, the Russian Minister for Industry & Trade Denis Manturov worked with Slovak pro-Kremlin politicians, the former Parliament’s Speaker Andrej Danko and the former Prime Minister Robert Fico, as well as the head of the Slovak-Russian pharmaceutical company Chirana, Vasiliy Shimko. The latter managed to involve the politically inexperienced and impulsive I. Matovic in the realization of their plan.
On February 17, the Slovak government rejected an offer to purchase the Russian vaccine. The decision over purchase was blocked by the Deputy Prime Minister for Investment and Regional Development Veronika Remishova, who noted the lack of vaccine certification in the EU, the lack of information on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and the risk of studying its effects directly on Slovaks. The use of the Russian vaccine was also opposed by Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová and two of the four coalition parties (Sloboda a Solidarita/SaS, Za Ludi).
However, on February 19, the Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic announced that he had already agreed with the Russian government, without coordination with coalition partners, the supply of 2 million doses of the Russian vaccine by June, of which 200,000 doses were immediately delivered to Slovakia by the Russian military aircraft in an emergency mode, that is, bypassing customs and inspections. The cargo is currently in storage while being tested by the State Institute for Drug Control, which will issue a recommendation in early April. The use of the non-EU-certified vaccine has been authorized by the Health Minister Marek Krajčí.
Explaining the reasons for the acquisition of Sputnik V, I.Matovic accused European institutions of failing to provide Slovakia with a sufficient number of vaccines, insisted on the need to accelerate vaccination and the need to use all opportunities to reduce mortality statistics. He was also forced to promote the Russian vaccine domestically, the CEE and the Balkans. The Slovak Prime Minister assured that the efficiency of Sputnik V is extremely high, it is manufactured in state-of-the-art enterprises. At the same time, a wide-ranging campaign to promote Sputnik V was launched in the Slovak media, with an emphasis on the honoured medical publication by The Lancet.
In addition, I.Matovic emphasized the fact that, as a result of the agreement between Bratislava and Moscow, Slovakia will receive not only the drug but also the technology of its manufacture, namely, will be able to launch its production at its pharmacological facilities to meet its own vaccine needs and economic benefits from Sputnik V exports to third countries.
Finally, the head of government promised to use the factor of purchasing the Russian vaccine to put pressure on European institutions in order for Slovakia to get more mRNA vaccines (Pfizer/BionTech, Moderna) instead of the vector AstraZeneca.
As a result, the country plunged into a political crisis. The Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok called Sputnik V a geopolitical weapon and a means of waging a hybrid war by Russia against the EU. I.Matovic was instantly reminded of the failure in the fight against the pandemic, the populist rhetoric and the generally ineffective run as prime minister. The existence of the pro-government coalition was threatened.
On March 12, the Health Minister Marek Krajčí resigned, hoping to become a scapegoat and prevent the crisis from unfolding. However, the Labour Minister Milan Krajniak, the Deputy Prime Minister Richard Sulík and the Minister of Economy, Justice Mária Kolíková, the Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok and the Minister of Education Branislav Gröhling later resigned, thus pressuring I.Matovic to resignation. Zuzana Čaputová also demanded the dismissal of the head of the government. I.Matovic expressed his readiness to leave his post in order to preserve the pro-government coalition.
In any case, the country is facing the threat of early elections. The parliamentary coalition was initially poorly consolidated. Four parties formed it on the basis of a single factor – rivalry with the political power of the former Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, who resigned amid corruption scandals and mass protests. Therefore, early elections have not yet been announced just because these four parties fear a revenge by R.Fico, however, the likelihood of re-election is high.
The beauty of Moscow’s game is that it first created the reality of re-elections in Slovakia, and now, in the event of an election campaign, it will do everything to help pro-Russian forces to return to power. First of all, this applies to the “Voice” party of the former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. Robert Fico and Smer–SD, Boris Kollár and We Are Family, Ondřej Danko and the Slovak National Party, as well as the right-wing extremist party (which even has paramilitary units) “Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia” also express sympathy for the Kremlin.
On the one hand, it should be noted that the pro-Russian course of the Slovak political forces that may return to power (“Voice” and SMER-SD) is not as deep as that of the Hungarian Fidesz party of Viktor Orbán or the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova of Igor Dodon. On the other hand, the coming to power of even moderately pro-Russian forces in Slovakia will lead to the spread of Eurosceptic sentiments and disorientation of the population, and as a result, instead of the current governmental political crisis, a new foreign policy crisis will emerge.
In the future, everything will depend on the recent events in Bratislava in the triangle president-government-parliament, Brussels’ ability to quickly establish an effective vaccine distribution mechanism, the rate of coronavirus spread and the EMA’s verdict on the Russian vaccine.
In turn, at the European institutions level, they were unpleasantly surprised by I.Matovich’s dubious dealings with the Kremlin and promotion of the Russian vaccine in the CEE and the Balkans. Brussels has never had any claims against Slovakia, unlike Greece (for financial reasons) or Hungary and Poland (for democratic values). Slovakia was considered a stable state that clearly pursued a pro-European course. Now, after Bratislava signed a deal to buy Sputnik V, Moscow has managed to make Slovakia’s image inside the EU deteriorate significantly!
The European Commission’s expected response to Bratislava (and Budapest, which is already vaccinating its population with Sputnik V) will be a digital passport for COVID-19 vaccines (the document will allow a simplified procedure to visit public places and cross borders). The Russian vaccine is likely to be declared illegitimate in the EU and will not be included in the list of drugs that will be recognized in the “vaccinated person’s passport”.
In general, Brussels can, of course, hope that the situation in Russia will change and instead of fighting the EU, it will set a course to build a democratic state of the European model. However, as long as an authoritarian dictator pursuing an expansionist foreign policy remains in power in the Kremlin, the boxing match between Russia and the EU will continue.