With coronavirus reaching every corner of the world, restrictive measures have been placed for containing the virus and preventing higher death rates. However, some autocrats take advantage of the pandemic to tighten the screws on a population and strengthen their power. Others suggested alternative medicine as a cure, publicly rejecting the threat of the novel coronavirus or its aftermaths for the economy and health of a country.
In one of the world’s most isolated countries, Turkmenistan, the authorities restricted the use of the word ‘coronavirus’. The government continues to deny any cases in the country. Turkmen citizens are being censored for publicly discussing the issue, while state-run media avoid direct usage of the word openly, diminishing the significance of the pandemic. In the circumstances of full-fledged censorship practices, receiving accurate information on the epidemic in Turkmenistan via independent or foreign media remains rather impossible.
Catherine Putz wrote in the article for The Diplomat:
“Ashgabat’s first instinct is regime preservation and that is predicated on maintaining the fiction that everything is fine and dandy, even as the world burns.”
On March 13, the country’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered to fumigate public spaces with traditional plant harmala, while never publicly addressing that this is seen as a measure against the coronavirus.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka can probably be a match to his Turkmen counterpart in giving medical advice. Earlier, he encouraged to spend more time in the open air air, to have a sip of vodka, and visit a sauna. While the Belarusian president continues to deny the fact of the epidemic in the country, over 10,000 people are confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. However, independent journalists who talk to the relatives of the hospitalised believe that the number is significantly higher. The Belarusian authorities have also been reluctant to accept WHO recommendations and cancel public gatherings such as sports competitions and military parades.
Medical workers are fighting at the forefront, and the civil society is consolidating in an attempt to provide all kinds of support to the healthcare system. With some measures taken to prevent the coronavirus spread in some fields, no state-policy on quarantine was publicly announced.
The authorities in Tajikistan took a similar course on managing the pandemic. Alleged coronavirus victims are diagnosed with pneumonia, and state-owned media report no cases of cCOVID19 in the country. For example, four older men died in the hospital of Dushanbe from reportedly pneumonia, which sparked a debate on trust to state in the circumstances of the pandemic. Amid the public denial of its danger for Tajikistan, the Tajik government introduced a partial lockdown, reinforcing the border control and introducing medical observation for those coming from abroad. However, the citizens are living a regular life, with their president calling on them not to panick over ‘various viruses’ spreading in the world.
In the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), the coronavirus is hardly highlighted by the authorities. With a challenging economic and political situation in the regions, hospitals and medical workers are poorly prepared for handling the pandemic. This is worsened by a lack of transparency. DNR representatives pointed out that pneumonia and tuberculosis are not uncommon among the Ukrainian soldiers at the frontline. While there is no official lockdown, citizens report on, for example, being asked to wear face masks when entering a bank; some mention the shortage of goods in the stores. The self-proclaimed DNR’s leader Denis Pushilin says thanks to Russia for providing the region with test systems without saying the numbers of the tests being received or conducted. As Kyiv announced the closure of the ‘border’ with the separatists-controlled areas, many citizens registered at Donetsk and Luhansk regions rushed to the border trying to escape.
Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has been using the pandemic for tightening the screws on the country’s opposition. Thus, recently the offices of the oppositional group D18 were forced to close due to the fact of ‘mass gathering’ (at that, only four people were present at the meeting). The censorship of media and social media in Azerbaijan increased as the Internet sparkled with publications criticising the actions of the government.
A challenging situation caused by the COVID19 pandemic created a dilemma between individual freedoms and a need for restrictive measures. However, such regimes, as in Azerbaijan, choose to use the moment for strengthening their power. The Business Insider quotes the human rights attorney Emin Abbasov:
“The restrictive measures imposed on civil liberties take place outside the accountability of those who exercise them — without effective parliamentary control and an independent judiciary”.
The pandemic led to a discussion on authoritarian and democratic regimes’ crisis management capacity. Democracies, on the one hand, provide transparency and trust instead of total control, as some autocracies. On the other hand, some believe that autocracies handle critical situations like epidemics more effectively possessing centralised discipline resources. The question is though whether the restrictions will be lifted after the outbreak.
“Critics say some governments are using the public health crisis as cover to seize new powers that have little to do with the outbreak, with few safeguards to ensure that their new authority will not be abused,” highlights Selam Gebrekidan for The New York Times.
Others suggest that political regime type shall not be a criterion for analysing the efficacy of pandemic management. As Rachel Kleinfeld argues, success in fighting coronavirus has an association with 1) trust to political systems, and 2) depoliticisation of the issue, rather than a political regime type.
Post-Soviet countries, with a long history of authoritarian rule, mostly possessing weaker economies, traditionally demonstrate a low confidence in their authorities. If autocratic post-Soviet states do not start providing transparent information, the pandemic will most likely lead not only to economic challenges but will also reduce trust in a political system even more.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu