The coronavirus pandemic is an event unprecedented in our lifetimes. Daily life is not proceeding as normal, nor is this a time of politics as normal.
In some countries, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought out the best in politicians, as formerly warring factions start to co-operate to give their populations the best chance of avoiding infection.
A notable example of this is Romania, where the National Liberal Party (PNL) and bitter rival Social Democratic Party (PSD) have put aside their differences to vote in a cabinet led by PNL leader Ludovic Orban — the same cabinet that opposition parties led by the PSD dismissed last month — so that Romania would have a government in place with the powers to tackle the pandemic. In fact, with many PNL MPs in quarantine after one of their number succumbed to the coronavirus, the largest number of votes for Orban’s new government came from the PSD, a situation that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
But not all politicians have risen to the occasion, and such is the distrust of the political elite in many countries across Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia that — even where the restrictions are motivated purely by public health concerns — many fear the lockdown measures will create an opportunity for their governments to clamp down on opposition and erode their populations’ ability to act as a check on power.
This is the fear in Bulgaria, where the parliament unanimously voted on March 13 to declare a month-long state of emergency. All political parties backed the request, which would give lawmakers the right to cut some of people's freedoms.
On March 20, the Bulgarian parliament adopted a law to define the measures the government will take during the state of emergency. The most controversial parts of the law are those defining supposedly fake news and tough sanctions in cases where media report such news, as well as the price cap on goods. President Rumen Radev, who has been vigorous in acting as a check on the government, has vetoed these two parts of the law, but the veto could yet be overturned.
In his comments on the text, Radev pointed out that freedom of expression and to publish information must never be defined as a crime, according several European conventions that Bulgaria, being a EU member, must obey.
While efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus are seen as necessary, many people fear that the state of emergency could lead to a serious threat to democracy in Bulgaria, and claim it is an unnecessary measure, writes bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Sofia.
Still, there are those who would like to go further. Bulgaria’s controversial chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev weighed in on the other side, urging the government to adopt measures close to those use in wartime, claiming that the current legislation is "too democratic". Geshev’s appointment at the end of last year caused a political storm in Bulgaria, not only because of his lacklustre record as deputy chief prosecutor but also because of his connections to leading politicians.
Similar steps have been taken in Hungary, where the government submitted a bill to parliament on March 20 that would extend a state of emergency declared on March 11, as reported by bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Budapest. Opposition parties have voiced concern about granting the cabinet special powers for an indefinite length of time, and say they will not support the bill.
The proposed legislation would allow the government to "suspend the application of some legislation, diverge from legal provisions and take other extraordinary measures by decree in the interest of ensuring the security of life, health, person, property and rights of citizens as well as the stability of the national economy".
As in Bulgaria, the provisions on fake news have caused particular concern. People disseminating false facts could face prison for three years, and up to five years if those impeded the effectiveness of measures to contain the coronavirus.
Hungary's government spokesman for international affairs blasted foreign media for "grossly distorting" the facts about the bill. Zoltan Kovacs said that some media outlets had jumped on the provision of the bill by producing such sensational headlines as "Hungarian journalists could end up spending several years in jail”.
To vote or not to vote
There are two very obvious ways the lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are having a political impact: first, bans on large gatherings rule out protests, and secondly, elections are being cancelled, as a popular vote would inevitably result in an increase in human contact, raising the risk of passing on the highly infectious coronavirus.
General elections scheduled for April in North Macedonia and Serbia are being postponed as the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase in both countries.
Not so in Poland, however, where the government has imposed a “state of epidemic” but has so far resisted calls for a full-on state of emergency — the latter would require that the May 10 presidential election be postponed until 90 days after the epidemic ends.
The opposition candidates, who have all limited their campaign to social media, are calling for a postponement of the vote. However, this would not suit incumbent President Andrzej Duda and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Despite the partial lockdown in the country, Duda has continued to appear in public, justifying it as his duty as head of state, and this appears to have helped his standing in the polls. The latest poll from IBSP was the first to show Duda above the 50% support mark. Holding the vote as soon as possible also means PiS will be spared the fallout from the crippling blow the crisis is expected to strike to the economy.
Meanwhile in Russia, as reported recently by bne IntelliNews, it is widely assumed by observers that the government is suppressing the numbers of coronavirus cases as it remains focused on holding a referendum to pass the recent changes to the Russian constitution that will reset the clock on the term counter for President Vladimir Putin and clear the way for him to serve an additional two terms in office until 2036. The Kremlin has refused to cancel the vote despite ramping up its response to hindering the spread of the infection.
So far, Russia has officially reported relatively few cases. However, there are disturbing reports from local press and social media that hospitals in the Russian capital have seen a surge of respiratory illnesses and pneumonia cases.
The Central and Southeast European regions has seen a wave of mass protests in recent years. In countries such as the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Albania and Serbia tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests with various specific causes, but all motivated by a dissatisfaction with their governments that in most cases has been related to official corruption.
Protests are now ruled out amid lockdowns in a growing number of countries. The Czech Republic, for example, has issued a blanket ban on anyone leaving their homes without a mask, or removing their masks until they return home. Serbia introduced a curfew for all residents between 8 pm and 5 am, while older people are not allowed to go out at all.
Further east, large gatherings have been banned in all 85 of Russia’s regions, along with a decision that schools and universities will move to remote learning, and individuals will be encouraged to work from home throughout the country. The definition of a “large gathering” varies by region from 50 to 1,000 individuals. Moscow and St. Petersburg have both banned gatherings of more than 50 people.
However, even under a partial lockdown residents of several Kosovan cities still managed to show their displeasure at the recent rift within the new ruling coalition that threatens to plunge the country back into political instability at a time when most people believe all efforts should be directed at fighting the epidemic. Instead of putting lives at risk by taking to the streets, citizens went to their balconies and banged pots and pans.
Just as US President Donald Trump branded the coronavirus a "Chinese disease" and also highlighted the outbreaks in the EU — taking a pop at his two main international rivals — a minority of political leaders in the CEE/Eurasia region have also incorporated the crisis into their populist rhetoric.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev recently threatened to “isolate” his political enemies during the crisis and talked of a “fifth column” with the country.
“A state of emergency might be declared sometime,” he said in a statement. “In this case, isolation of the representatives of this fifth column will become a historical necessity… We cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces, the fifth column, national traitors, taking advantage of this situation, to commit any provocation.”
A comment by Doug Klain, a programme assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, says that authorities in Azerbaijan “are using the virus as a pretext to continue their harassment of opposition groups”. For example, police ordered the closure of the opposition D18 Movement, claiming that by gathering the activists risked spreading the virus.
“The world’s attention is focused on combating COVID-19 right now, but the way authoritarians use the crisis to consolidate power cannot be ignored,” wrote Klain.
Similarly, in Hungary, a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — Central Europe’s leading illiberal democrat — of “weaponising” the crisis “to fuel xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric rather than to focus on developing an actionable plan to deal with it”. Specifically, Orban used his favourite anti-immigrant rhetoric to claim a link between coronavirus and illegal migrants.
Lydia Gall, senior Eastern EU/Balkans researcher at HRW, questions whether the public healthcare system will be able to handle a coronavirus outbreak and criticises the government for being slow to respond with specific actions; stricter measures were only announced in mid-March. “As usual, the government is trying to distract the Hungarian people with anti-foreigner rhetoric,” Gall commented.
For the moment, the main focus in CEE and Eurasia is on fighting the pandemic, as it is around the world. But if the crisis — as seems likely — drags on for months, with states of emergency being extended and restrictions on freedom of movement continuing indefinitely, it could see such restrictions becoming entrenched in the region, to the advantage of any leaders with authoritarian tendencies.