After 30 years of romancing with Western democracy, at the time of the coronavirus, the authorities in Central and Eastern Europe do not really understand what democracy is about. Similar examples of misuse of power, intimidation and excessive restrictions as from the Balkan states can easily be found in Central Europe.

COVID-19 changed reality in Europe overnight. Faced with an unknown threat, more European countries were reaching the method used in China to rapidly reduce human interactions and thereby stop the spread of the virus.

Although the iron logic of minimising the spread of the coronavirus is a tactic commonly used by governments, its practical dimension leaves much to be desired.

In the case of the Balkan countries, there are many weaknesses in the relationship between the individual and the state, which are not only specific to this region.

Political culture matters

Kyriakos Mitsotakis

The virus, which we owe to the Chinese Communist Party, has become a challenge for every state, government and society. Although it would be possible to deliberate for a long time on the legitimacy of regulations introduced by national authorities, the fact is that their implementation takes place under the specific conditions of political culture, within the accepted norms and ways of practising politics.

Hence, the extraordinary situation in which European societies found themselves depended not only on the determination of the authorities but also on the quality of politics in the given country and social attitudes.

Coronavirus everyday life forced a radical change in human habits and stopped the economy, inflicting a powerful blow to many of its sectors. State authorities introduced legislation appropriate to the needs of the moment, although in some countries it was considered an absolute necessity to formally introduce a state of emergency, while in others it was limited to adopting relevant legislation.

The Greek experience in that respect is quite telling. The government in Athens did not introduce a state of emergency. However, the swift imposition of radical restrictions, including the lockdown of educational institutions and shops that are not necessary for primary needs, aimed at protecting the fragile healthcare system.

For now, this strategy works, although the longer the epidemy lasts, the more difficult it will be to sustain this policy. Interestingly, in that respect, Greece was more often compared with the dramatic cases of Italy and Spain than with its direct neighbours on the Balkans.

There is also the case of Serbia, which admittedly implemented a state of emergency, however, bypassing the parliament, which creates the risk of undermining in court any decision of the authority justified by an emergency. In countries dominated by the absolutist philosophy of Louis XIV “the state is me,” the coronavirus presented an extraordinary opportunity to consolidate it.

As one Bulgarian parliamentarian noted in the course of the preparatory works of the epidemy-related legislation, “everything can be changed in the current situation.”

That is why the plague has become not only a time of mobilising the state to protect its population, but also a convenient opportunity for those in power to strengthen their position in relation to society.

The coronavirus’s impact on political systems, the rule of law and human rights in the Balkan countries will be serious.

Strike on human rights

The current development of events allows us to see two types of problems related to the protection of human rights. The first is the direct actions of the authorities seeking to limit them.

The desire to gain complete control over the public message led to the introduction of sanctions for disinformation regarding coronavirus or panic. The authorities’ actions regarding the control of the message have already had their mark in the countries of the region.

In Kosovo, Tatjana Lazarevic, a journalist from the Serbian minority, was temporarily detained by the authorities running northern Kosovo, because she wanted to describe the state of preparation of a clinic.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Maja Stojić Dragojević, a doctor and opposition politician, was punished for her Facebook posts about the lack of protective measures in hospitals and for expressing a negative opinion about the state of preparation for fighting the pandemic.

In Bulgaria, proceedings were initiated against the head of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Association, Asena Stoimenova, for interviews and information about the possible lack of access to certain drugs. A bailout of 20,000 lev was set. However, the court’s decision lifted the charges against Stoimenova and the deposit was returned.

In Serbia, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić lifted regulations after the case of the Novi Sad based journalist Ana Lalić sparked a wave of criticism. Lalić was arrested hours after publishing a report on the chaotic conditions in a local hospital and accused of spreading panic.

Technology at the service of power

The need to control quarantined persons due to coronavirus has created favourable conditions for the use of new technologies.

In Bulgaria, authorities obliged operators to provide metadata from mobile phones. Although the authorities justify the need for control over persons in quarantine, the provisions of the act apply to everyone, and the lack of any judicial control gives the possibility of abuse.

Pursuant to the act on emergency, amendments to the telecommunications act were introduced not only without public discussion but also have no time limit, which raises doubts as to the intention of the authorities.

In Greece, non-job related reasons to be out had to be reported to the civil protection ministry via text message.

In turn, in Montenegro, the authorities decided that public disclosure of the details of those who violate it (naming and shaming) would be a good way to avoid quarantine.

Basic EU freedom suspended

Restriction of freedom of movement has become one of the main tools of power in the fight against coronavirus. Although reasonable seems to be the steps taken to this end, the authorities of individual countries are implementing increasingly sophisticated ways to keep people at home.

In Serbia, not only the borders have been completely closed, but also their own foreign citizens are encouraged to refrain from returning home during the epidemic.

In Kosovo, the authorities implemented draconian restrictions on the possibility of leaving home for only 90 minutes per day to take care of the most necessary life matters.

In turn, in Bulgaria, unexpectedly, the night before Good Friday, the capital was blocked. Only people certifying permanent residence outside the capital could leave. In the face of a large number of false certificates, the authorities punished them with travel tickets around the holidays, and the blockade still applies.

The introduction of additional restrictions on moving in Roma neighbourhoods gave rise to a series of protests by the Roma community and constitutes a dangerous temptation to treat problems separately depending on the origin of the citizens.

The final fall of standards

The second important problem is the actions of the authorities, which indirectly affect the quality of human rights and the protection of the individual. Often, these are not actions directly aimed at rights and freedoms. They result from the way of doing politics, but their effects on human rights can be considerable.

Corruption and abuse of power have been a problem in the region for many years. However, the coronavirus has created a convenient opportunity to dismantle even current but weak anti-corruption controls.

Through petty corruption, facilitated by the law governing leaving home, and rapid tenders for insiders, in line with emergency legislation, the door to abuse has opened wide. The head of the Bulgarian Development Bank (BBR) granted a debt collection company with minimum revenues for the previous year (approx. a thousand EUR), loans for 75 million leva (approx. 37 mln EUR). Such a gross misappropriation of funds by the nominated director of the BBR from the GERB party cost him his work.

Apparently, the bank will play an important role in the fight against COVID-19, because instead of one new director, two more were nominated.

Loosening the law

Another characteristic feature that connects all the countries of the region is the hasty and non-transparent introduction of legal regulations. A sense of terror and fear, effectively compounded by statistics of infected and dead people, completely deprived people of critical thinking and common sense.

Prudence and reflection have been replaced by haste and theoretical effectiveness, which translate into such lame ideas as closing parks in Bulgaria, and children and people over 65 in homes without a right to leave.

Draconian financial penalties are also not for prevention but for intimidating the public.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, penalties range from 500 to 4,500 euros and in Albania one could face up to 15 years in prison for breaking the government’s bans during a pandemic.

A total violation of the principle of proportionality between punishment and deed forced the Bulgarian parliament in early April to reduce the penalties originally adopted as part of the fight against the epidemic.

Uncontrolled power, rampant corruption, volatility and weakness of law are not problems directly related to human rights, but ultimately their effects affect the relationship between the individual and those in power.

An unfinished lesson in democracy

Aleksandar Vučić

After 30 years of romancing with Western democracy, at the time of the coronavirus, the authorities in Central and Eastern Europe do not really understand what democracy is about. Similar examples of misuse of power, intimidation and excessive restrictions as from the Balkan states can easily be found in Central Europe.

Unfortunately, governments in the region do not understand that the state of emergency is not just about citizens, but about the power itself and the way it exercises its politics. Just as people are limited in their ability to act, move freely, express opinions and influence reality, governments should also freeze their activity, reducing it to a state of “interim government” or “technical” which is only to administer reality and fight the threat.

At the same time, if in such an extraordinary time, there are important political decisions that require democratic legitimacy that cannot be secured in such conditions, they must be postponed so that there is no reason for questioning the essence of democracy. Whenever the authorities act outside this framework, whether deliberately or not, they violate the essence of democracy with its outbursts on human rights.

While in Serbia, the elections were firstly postponed and then scheduled for June, President Aleksandar Vučić honestly acknowledged the need to “create a democratic atmosphere”. The period of emergency, with its limitations on the freedoms of speech, expression and association is not a period for elections.

If the public does not have the appropriate tools to mobilise and express its opinion, the authorities should refrain from any elections that can be questioned later.

When the political elites in the region prove on a daily basis that they do not apprehend the logic of self-restraint in politics, they should at least refrain from using this epidemy for the further dismantling of the fragile democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.

Examples of Israeli protests at a statutory distance, Slovenian cycling, efforts to boo or make noise from balconies are admirable attempts at social mobilisation during the plague, but they are not sufficient to respond to the speed and ruthlessness of power without proper control.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Polish version is available on Res Publica Nowa.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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