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Coronavirus in Central and Eastern Europe – will the lockdown become a cage?

Veronica Anghel / May 2020

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Eastern Europeans asked for tough measures to deal with the coronavirus. Some are now getting more than they bargained for. Across Central and Eastern Europe, there is variation in how measures against the virus are implemented, how successful health systems are and how elites choose to consider individual rights during a state of emergency. In some CEE countries, political elites who were in power at the start of this crisis are ready to take advantage of the uniqueness of the situation to remain there for the foreseeable future. They set in motion practices incompatible with normal democratic practices and increased the risk of cementing systemic weaknesses. In doing so, these governments may be setting themselves up for a conflict with the people. The role of Europe will be to help reconcile that tension along lines that are consistent with the European Union’s founding principles. In doing so, EU leaders have to firmly embrace the side of individual rights and freedoms and fight back against the advent of ‘big government’.

Centralisation of power

Major security threats ask for decisive defensive strategies. Power centralisation in the hands of the executive is a common framework for action. For those elites who already harbour authoritarian attitudes, the pandemic is an opportunity to advance their agenda. The requirement for social distancing offers fertile ground for the suppression of political and civil rights. The political elites in countries such as Poland and Hungary are manipulating institutions in a bid to further centralize power or for controversial political gains. The Hungarian premier Vikor Orban and his FIDESZ party decided to rule indefinitely by decree and instated sanctions of up to 5 years imprisonment for journalists considered to spread misinformation or alarming information that interferes with the government’s mission to protect.

Poland’s ruling Law and Order (PiS) Party considered changing the constitution to extend President Andrzej Duda’s term by two years because of threats related to the coronavirus pandemic. The Parliament has now largely decided to make changes to the electoral system to allow postal vote and maintain scheduled presidential elections for May 10th. This is a controversial move two weeks before the election in a country where the basic law forbids changes to the electoral system 6 months before elections. Whether the all-postal presidential election is constitutional is unclear. What is clear is that the election outcome will secure a friendly president for PiS conservative and controversial reformist agenda. Most recently, on April 8th, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has once more ruled against some of Poland’s judicial reforms. The ECJ ordered Poland to suspend the introduction of a new disciplinary panel for judges. PM Mateusz Morawiecki and PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński continue to be in conflict with the European Commission.

In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov obtained parliamentary support for a bill amending the penal code to punish spreading false information with heavy fines and prison terms. Borisov’s party (GERB), who controls the majority in parliament, also voted in favour of giving the military a mandate to use force if necessary and control the population. In Romania, soldiers in combat gear man armoured vehicles in the country’s capital, Bucharest.

In the context of high corruption risk in post-communist countries, the absolute powers given to leaders by the state of emergency will amplify the practice of discreet allocation of funds and strengthen informal networks of business and political interests. Hungarian PM Orban’s strategy for a ‘national cooperation system’ led to the fast accumulation of state capital in the hands of his close family and friends. Following the state of emergency, these economic allies have seen the value of their shares surge. In Romania, containment measures allowed the allocation of single bid contracts for protective gear. Investigations connect the bulk of the winning firms to local and national politicians and show how these have been given preferential access to resources regardless of the price asked.

Reluctant Acceptance

Nevertheless, the public in Central and Eastern Europe (as elsewhere) is willing to trade off democracy for public health. So far, the Hungarian, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian public welcomed the heavy restrictions and respected the lockdown mostly in fear of high fines and penalties. Distrust in authorities is very high, but health fears are even higher. Using the army to control the population is not likely to be met with resistance. According to a 2019 study commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Romania, the army is the most trusted national institution, rallying the appreciation of 68% of respondents. The church ranks in second with a score of 55%. This is significantly higher than trust in political parties (11,3%) or the parliament (11,2%). In Bulgaria, the army is also reported to constantly enjoy higher trust than any other institution ever since the change after 1989.

In the confrontation between individual freedom and structural constraints, executives are being given leeway to make all the choices. Staying-at-home is ultimately an individual choice, but some CEE elites continue to harbour authoritative habits, discourses and measures that ignore giving the public incentives to make good choices. They are not transparent with information, refuse debates and never admit to making mistakes. They resort to threats and punishment. Hungarian PM Viktor Orban makes daily surprise visits to hospitals, punishing hospital managers who do not conform to government issued rules. In Romania, PM Ludovic Orban placed hospitals deemed to have dysfunctional management under military rule. The president, Klaus Iohannis, issued a decree forbidding doctors and police officers from resigning during the state of emergency after many left their job in protest of lack of protective equipment. In Poland, the legislative is pushing further anti-abortion and anti sex-education laws favoured by ultra-conservatives and the Catholic Church.

So far the threats seem to be working and discipline is holding. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe show many fewer incidents of infection and much lower rates of mortality than elsewhere on the continent. These governments have now had more time than Western Europe to better prepare to co-live with the virus and enter the second wave of the pandemic announced by experts. Nevertheless, two months into the pandemic, government enforced lockdowns continue to be the main solution to fight the virus. We are still to understand why the West counts significantly more victims to the virus. Recent patterns of elite behaviour allow fewer unknowns as to why Eastern Europeans are seeing their individual rights falling prey. The open question is how long the people will continue to embrace this trade-off and what kind of backlash may follow when a restless people confront an entrenched and centralized regime.

After two months of forced quarantine, people are increasingly getting accustomed to the disaster sowed by the coronavirus and the banality of its evils and are likely to challenge the rules of the lockdown. The Poles have tried to stage a ‘socially distanced’ protest against the abortion ban. There is also a widespread practice of informal opposition to rules, to which authorities turn a blind eye. The already expanded informal economy is flourishing, with service providers such as hairdressers, beauticians or caregivers increasingly making house calls. Romanians and Bulgarians are keen to answer calls for agricultural work in the UK and Germany and for social work in Austria at great personal peril. National governments have been the administrators of such cheap labour flights. Some governments are not likely to show flexibility with the populace and refuse to include their social needs in further planning while still asking for major individual sacrifices. The risk of further selective limitations of human rights is high in Hungary, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria and moderate to low in Czechia, Slovenia and Slovakia. The Baltic States are faring better by all accounts. The lesson going into the second wave of the pandemic is not that more forceful measures are necessary, but that better preparation and bringing people along in a transparent decision making process is paramount.

The tools of national-sovereignty and rediscovered authoritarian practices are being used against the individual rights of some EU members. On the surface, the trade-off is acceptable. In the longer run, formal and informal opposition is likely to emerge. International cooperation and EU leadership is desperately needed to offset the negative political and economic consequences. European coordination of financial support is necessary, but not sufficient to offset the advent of ‘big government’. The EU also needs to have direct presence in the life of Eastern Europeans with educational tools, strategic communication, smart media presence and bold support for civil rights. The promise of reopened borders is currently not a guarantee. The EU has to make it so. The time to get behind citizens, not states, is now.

Veronica Anghel

Veronica Anghel

May 2020

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