Polarisation and populism
During the pandemic, only European countries in which democracy has eroded used the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19. In countries where a system of separated powers, adequate independence of state institutions from government institutions, and freedom of the media are guaranteed, the Sputnik V vaccine was not distributed. The strength of democracy was highly significant in terms of a country’s take-up or otherwise of the Sputnik V vaccine, research by experts at the National Institute for Research on Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI) has proved.
“Populist politicians in a number of countries, including the Czech Republic, considered distributing Sputnik V, but in the end the vaccine was imported only to eight countries in which democracy is eroding,” says SYRI’s Petra Guasti. “Importing of the Sputnik V vaccine was advocated predominantly by populist politicians exposed to greater pressure during the pandemic, particularly in terms of losing votes in elections and possible investigation of their corrupt practices.”
The presence of populists in power is an insufficient explanation for the existence of this phenomenon, however. Instead, the key factor is whether these populist leaders have already succeeded in diluting the strength of democracy. “Sputnik V was imported to countries where populists were in power and democracy was eroding even before the pandemic,” says Guasti, who, together with her colleague Jaroslav Bílek supports this conclusion by citing the cases of Hungary and Serbia. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for instance, the populists encountered resistance from the government’s opposition and other institutions, and their efforts were entirely or largely unsuccessful.
Another important finding of the research is that the import of the Sputnik V vaccine, which has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the EU’s drug regulatory body, and whose effectiveness has been questioned, was not influenced by historical and commercial ties with Russia. Take-up of Sputnik V thus resulted primarily not from structural factors but from ties between Russia and ruling illiberal political elites in certain European countries.
“The decision of certain European countries to import the Sputnik V vaccine was not motivated by medical purposes: it was entirely political,” says Bílek. “Countries, where the number of deaths from Covid-19 during the pandemic was relatively high, did not make greater efforts to import Sputnik V than countries where the mortality rate was lower." Moreover, although membership in the European Union reduced a country’s chances of importing the Sputnik V vaccine, it was not a decisive factor, as shown by the case of Hungary and Slovakia.
The additional analysis produced the interesting discovery that trade with Hungary rather than with Russia played a role in adopting the Sputnik V vaccine. "Nevertheless, trade ties with Hungary are not the only or even the strongest possible explanation for importing Sputnik V,” says Guasti. “But this does confirm that Prime Minister Orbán’s Hungary is a destabilising element in the European Union. A similar argument can be made about importing vaccines from China.”
SYRI’s research findings have been published in the academic journal East European Politics. The researchers analysed only the situation in European countries. In other parts of the world, the circumstances of the pandemic were markedly different. “Many countries outside the EU did not have sufficient access to better vaccines, so their governments were often willing to take more risks in their efforts to manage the pandemic,” Bílek adds.