Europe's strongmen leaders want to use the coronavirus pandemic to tighten their grip while touting their prowess in overcoming crises, but their authority risks being badly undermined if the outbreak is mishandled.
From Turkey to Russia and other ex-Soviet states such as Belarus, the coronavirus has proved an unexpected test for systems already facing economic difficulties and, in some cases, international isolation.
Activists fear the pandemic is being exploited by some leaders as a pretext to further erode civil liberties by cracking down on the right to assemble and squeezing digital freedoms.
But there may be a heavy price to pay for authoritarian governments if their societies — already showing signs of discontent over economic trouble — see that the pandemic was better handled in more democratic nations.
At the onset of the pandemic, a “lot of people were thinking that this crisis was going to be a boon for authoritarians, creating fertile ground for autocrats to grab more power,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
But now, she told AFP, it looks like “this crisis is going to play out quite unevenly across different countries.”
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said: “The pandemic operates like a worldwide X-ray and reveals inner fragilities, some known, some hidden, in many countries’ political systems, economic policies, or foreign relations.”
‘No net benefit for regime’
Russia under President Vladimir Putin and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — both in power for some two decades — have faced a delicate balancing act between limiting the spread of disease and economic damage.
Some leaders hoped they would be spared the worst of the crisis, with Putin bullishly declaring that the epidemic was “under control” and Turkey boasting as late as March that it had no cases to report at all.
The maverick leader of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, said this month that “this is mainly a panic and infodemic,” and unlike Russia, his country blithely pressed ahead with an annual May 9 parade marking victory in World War II.
But for all Lukashenko’s bravado, the virus has made its mark in his country bordering the EU, at a time he faces re-election in August and increasingly testy relations with Russia. According to official figures, over 25,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 151 have died.
In Russia, the virus outbreak stung Putin at a particularly awkward moment, derailing plans for an April referendum to allow him to stay in power even after his term expires in 2024.
His popularity has dived to just 59 percent, according to the Levada Centre, way off its high of 89 percent in June 2015 in the wake of the annexation of Crimea.
Russia now has the world’s second-highest number of virus cases, and top officials including the premier and Putin’s spokesman have been infected.
“In places like Russia, I don’t see how this is going to be a net benefit for the regime,” Kendall-Taylor said.
The pandemic came at the moment “the regime was trying to orchestrate a transition so that Putin could stay in power,” she said. “That regime transition is the most vulnerable time for any authoritarian regime.”
The crisis is also likely to prove a critical moment for Erdogan, who is facing fresh political challenges from newly elected opposition mayors, along with economic trouble that has pushed the lira to record lows.
An undoubted achievement of the Erdogan era has been improving the capacity of the Turkish health system, and officials insist that the outbreak is now under control.
But, according to Pierini, this “will hardly hide the more problematic realities” that Turkey faces as economic difficulties mount, with the central bank no longer able to wage a costly battle to prop up the lira with currency interventions.
“Past choices in the monetary field, military operations, or disruptive moves in the Eastern Mediterranean were highly problematic,” he said.
“They will now become a bigger difficulty in the light of the pandemic-induced economic recession,” he said.
‘Emerge more repressive’
Amnesty International warned in a report this month that governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia were responding to the pandemic with “repressive and abusive measures which fall far short of their human rights obligations.”
It said that authorities “have used newly introduced emergency powers to harass journalists and others who have tried to share information.”
Amnesty pointed the finger at Azerbaijan and Russia in particular for prosecuting social media users, journalists and medical professionals who exposed flaws in official COVID-19 responses.
Analysts also fear that the importance of monitoring home quarantines and contact-tracing of infected people will give further opportunities to curtail civil liberties, especially in the digital sphere.
“If the Putin regime, and authoritarian regimes more broadly, are able to muddle through, they will emerge more repressive, less liberal and more closed,” Kendall-Taylor said.