Allies call on Slovak leader to resign over Russian vaccine

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Slovakia's Prime Minister Igor Matovic arrives for a government meeting in Bratislava Friday, March 12, 2021. Two parties in Slovakias ruling coalition called Monday March 15, 2021, on populist prime minister Matovic to step down amidst a government crisis triggered two weeks ago by a secret deal to acquire Russias Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, orchestrated by Matovic. (JaroslavNovak/TASR via AP)

PRAGUE – Two parties in Slovakia’s ruling coalition called on the populist prime minister to resign to open the way for a reconstruction of the government amid a political crisis triggered by a secret deal to buy Russia's coronavirus vaccine.

Richard Sulik, the head of the Freedom and Solidarity party and a deputy prime minister, said Prime Minister Igor Matovic’s resignation is a “necessary” step for the four-party coalition to survive.

“If he doesn't resign, we're ready to leave the government,” Sulik, who is also the economy minister, said. He gave Matovic a March 23 deadline to step down.

Sulik's party was joined on Monday by the For People party, another coalition party, in demands that Matovic resign.

Sulik and Matovic had clashed repeatedly over how to tackle the pandemic, but the current crisis is the most serious the one-year-old coalition has faced.

Sulik said Matovic's resignation would create space for a more constructive and effective cooperation in the coalition. He also said he would be willing to offer his own resignation to give the coalition a fresh start.

There was no immediate response from Matovic to the demands.

President Zuzana Caputova invited Matovic to discuss the crisis on Tuesday.

The crisis erupted when a secret deal came to light two weeks ago involving Slovakia's agreement to acquire Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. The deal was orchestrated by Matovic despite disagreement among his coalition partners.

Matovic has defended the deal to buy 2 million Sputnik V vaccines, saying it will speed up the country's vaccination program.

Among those who opposed it was Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, who was nominated to the post by Sulik’s party. He argued that the vaccine was a tool in Russia’s hybrid war against the West. Korcok said the purchase cast doubts on his country’s clear pro-Western orientation.

Another coalition partner, For People, was also angry, arguing that any vaccine needs approval from the EU’s drug regulator, which has not happened with Sputnik V.

For People leader Veronika Remisova said that Sulik should resign together with Matovic as a way out of the crisis.

“Their conflicts effectively slowed down the government’s work,” said Remisova, who is the deputy prime minister for investments and informatization.

If Matovic refuses to resign and the Freedom and Solidarity and For People leave the government, the remaining two parties would lose their majority in Parliament.

Health Minister Marek Krajci, representing Matovic’s Ordinary People party, already resigned last week. His resignation was also demanded by the two coalition partners.

Sulik also said he believed that Matovic’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been chaotic, making Slovakia one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union.

Slovakia, the nation of 5.4 million, has recorded almost 338,000 cases of COVID-19 and 8,605 deaths.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths has risen over the past two weeks from 1.79 deaths per 100,000 people on Feb. 28 to 1.81 deaths per 100,000 people on March 14, according to Johns Hopkins University. That is the second highest death rate in the world.

Populist Matovic struck a deal a year ago to govern with the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party, the conservative For People, and We Are Family, a populist right-wing group that was allied with France’s far-right National Rally party.

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