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Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.

Viola Gienger on Coronavirus and Faultlines in Europe and Russia

September 9, 2020

Viola Gienger is the Washington Editor for Just Security and a research scholar at NYU School of Law. She previously served as senior editor/writer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, where she worked on issues including the Ukraine/Russia crisis. Prior to that, she was an editor and reporter at Bloomberg News, covering the State Department and the Pentagon for five years. Gienger has reported from more than 30 countries. She lived and worked for seven years in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, managing training programs and consulting for independent media in transition, and writing as a freelance journalist. Full bio

Many countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have turbulent histories and have seen significant challenges to their democracies in recent years. How have these experiences affected their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The levels of coronavirus infection vary widely across these countries, from relatively low levels (at least so far) like that in Hungary, which has recorded 95 cases per 100,000 population as of Sept. 9, to highs like that of Bosnia, with about 661 infections per 100,000 people, according to the Johns Hopkins University global coronavirus tracker and CNN. Poland and Ukraine are somewhere in between, at 188 and 323, respectively. So it’s exceedingly hard to discern a pattern, and the responses of governments and populations across Eastern and Southeastern Europe have ranged across the board.

The biggest effect of the authoritarian trends across the broader region, though, has been to magnify the chaos and distrust that comes with any major crisis like this. In countries that have seen democratic backsliding or similar forms of dysfunction, government measures can quickly turn draconian. As my Just Security colleague, Co-Editor-in-Chief Tess Bridgeman, noted in her “Novel Threats” Q&A, Hungary’s Viktor Orban was one who took advantage of the pandemic to further consolidate his power with an indefinite rule-by-decree measure. And Bosnia—which isn’t authoritarian, but its leading parties still try to govern with a similar corrupt paternalism—early on issued severe, no-exceptions stay-home orders on anyone over 65 and banned children from playing outside. At one point, authorities required 100 Bosnians arriving at the Sarajevo airport to quarantine in student dorms, but didn’t test or examine them or tell them how long they’d have to stay there.

“The biggest effect of the authoritarian trends across the broader region, though, has been to magnify the chaos and distrust that comes with any major crisis like this. In countries that have seen democratic backsliding or similar forms of dysfunction, government measures can quickly turn draconian.”

The region’s citizens have responded to the pandemic in part based on their unfortunate familiarity with major crises in their lifetimes: the volatile transitions to democracy and then, in some cases, backsliding; the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the post-war entrenchment of wartime parties or leaders; and the resulting debilitating stagnation. The idea of wearing masks or abiding by stay-home orders or curfews as a matter of life or death doesn’t seem so severe, by comparison, especially considering health-care systems across the region, even after all these years, still range from only passable to dire. So when authorities saw what was happening in Italy, some imposed lockdowns and preventive measures like mask-wearing fairly early, and compliance was relatively high.

Another major vector in the response to the pandemic by both governments and their citizens in the region is information and communication. As an example of the many variables, citizens of Hungary, as part of the European Union, have at least some more access to reliable information alternatives to their state-crony controlled media than those in Russia, Belarus or Bosnia, where technology or language flexibility still lag. Even though Orban and his cronies have a lock on news media in Hungary now, the internet and social media, however flawed, provide at least some reality checks. How all of this is playing out is highly complex and remains unclear.

How is the pandemic playing out in Russia and how has it affected President Putin’s consolidation of power?

At more than 1 million cases, Russia has the fourth-highest reported number of infections in the world, but the rate of 715 cases per 100,000 people, while high within the region, is in the lower brackets worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Fully a quarter of the cases reported are in Moscow. Because government is so opaque and the health-care system is appalling, the figures are mostly likely vastly underreported. At one point in April, the few news media able to operate at least a little more freely, including foreign media, reported that multiple hospitals were under quarantine.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Putin was exercising his own form of distancing—distancing himself from the bad news. Putin pretty much left the dirty work of imposing and enforcing preventive measures to loyalists in his Cabinet and Russia’s sprawling regions, before finally turning up on TV again. Some observers thought that was odd, considering his penchant for total control. (In a TV appearance, he compared what he described as Russia’s success in tackling the virus (a lie) to the United States by saying, with no sense of irony, “I can’t imagine someone in the [Russian] government or regions saying we are not going to do what the government or president say.”) But why would he want to associate himself with a crisis he didn’t choose? As Stephen Holmes mentioned in his “Novel Threats” Q&A, tyrants much prefer to invent crises than deal with real ones. Of course, Putin was perfectly happy to associate himself with the August announcement that Russian authorities had approved their “Sputnik V” coronavirus vaccine and that it was even administered to one of his daughters. Never mind that it hadn’t been fully tested in large-scale clinical trials.

“In the early weeks of the pandemic, Putin was exercising his own form of distancing—distancing himself from the bad news.”

Meanwhile, it has been authoritarian business as usual in Russia in other ways, too, even while the virus rages. In July, Putin rammed through a complicated referendum that obscured a provision extending his stay in office after his current term expires in 2024 by two more six-year terms, to 2036. Part of his success has been his effectively total control of news media and a near-complete ban on civil society that doesn’t agree with him. And now his last remaining prominent opponent who was still in Russia, Alexei Navalny, is emerging from a coma in a German hospital, apparently poisoned by the same Soviet-era chemical nerve agent, Novichok, that nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. in 2018. It is a chemical that experts say is only available from the Russian military.

As for the European Union’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, we’ve heard a lot about the acute conditions in Italy and Spain in the early months, and we know Germany is among the countries that managed to keep the virus under much better control. What has been the pandemic’s effect on unity or divisions in a union that was already strained by Brexit and the 2015 migrant crisis?

As the virus exploded in Italy in February and spread across the rest of the continent, the European Union (EU)’s open internal borders quickly slammed shut for the first time in more than two decades. The Schengen Zone, which is supposed to allow free movement and includes most but not all EU countries, effectively became a mirage, as each member restored passport controls and other border regulations in an effort to control the spread of the virus. The EU formally approved temporary emergency closures in mid-March, and then was able to reopen borders by the summer vacation season, once the virus mostly came under control in Europe. That’s reversing again now, as those vacationers seem to have spread the infection and/or brought it home. The EU is allowing some restrictions, and Hungary just became the first to shut its borders entirely again, as it confronts a second wave of infections.

But don’t count out the EU as a bloc. In the early days of this devastating pandemic, there were plenty of skeptics who doubted that the union could survive this blow. But it has come back from other significant challenges in the past: it overcame its debt and financial crisis a decade ago, grappled with the 2015 migrant crisis, pushed back on a far-right surge and is negotiating what might be a tough deal for the UK on Brexit. With respect to COVID, many of the steps Europe has taken to counter the pandemic were in fact taken collaboratively or under the EU rubric: in addition to collaborating on medical care and supplies, research and vaccine development and finding accommodation on border closures, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron helped lead a monumental effort toward a joint $2 trillion EU economic recovery package in July. That was the outcome of record-long negotiations that managed to bridge the persistent ideological chasms between southern and northern members. The resulting agreement actually binds the EU together fiscally more than ever.

In the midst of the pandemic, the scale and longevity of the opposition protests we are seeing in Belarus are without precedent in recent history. How much did COVID fuel the longstanding opposition to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, and how do you see that situation unfolding going forward?

Lukashenko’s dismissive reaction to the pandemic provided a powerful accelerant for discontent that already had been spreading beyond the usual opposition to his 26 years in power. The country’s economy has been hit in recent years by the nose-dive in the energy sector—Belarus is a refining and transit hub—and the pandemic worsened the trade picture. That worried ordinary citizens, especially the increasingly well-educated and digitally connected young people working in tech and other sectors.

So when Lukashenko repeatedly scorned other countries’ coronavirus precautions as “psychosis” and recommended his people ward it off with vodka and saunas (yes, he really said that), Belarusians were disgusted. They saw the toll the virus was taking. As of Sept. 9, Belarus had an incidence rate of 772 per 100,000 people, compared with neighboring Poland’s 188. And that’s if the Belarus figures are real, which is always a question in an authoritarian state. For Belarusians, it drove home the life-and-death costs of having such an unaccountable, Soviet-era dinosaur at the helm (Lukashenko was a state farm boss back in the day). In this sense, the COVID crisis may well have provided the spark that inflamed a long-simmering discontent.

“Lukashenko’s dismissive reaction to the pandemic provided a powerful accelerant for discontent that already had been spreading beyond the usual opposition to his 26 years in power.”

The wild card now, of course, is Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko has been playing him off against the West for decades, so there’s no love lost between them. And Belarusian opposition leaders have been smartly nuanced in signaling this time that they don’t oppose ties with Russia, and just want Lukashenko to step down and have a legitimate election.

But Putin is even less a fan of democracy than he is of Lukashenko. The biggest danger for Putin is an example of a successful democracy in a former Soviet republic— he’s spent enormous energy and resources making sure that doesn’t materialize, from his invasion of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and now possibly Belarus. He recently announced he has a reserve force on standby in case the situation in Belarus meets his definition of out of control. At the same time, his invasion of Ukraine didn’t work out so well for him; Ukrainians’ affinity for Russia took a nosedive, and Putin is still mired in a military conflict in eastern Ukraine and a political resistance in Crimea.

So the question will be how organized and united Belarus’s opposition remains, and how vigorous and creative the European Union and the United States will be in their diplomacy and their sanctions. The EU has been far more consistent in maintaining sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine invasion than anyone expected. The combination of the attempted assassination of Navalny and the Belarus crisis might make EU leaders understand better than ever the risk they take in pulling their punches.

Novel Threats: National Security and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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