Democracies in Central and Eastern Europe have been in retreat for a while even before being hit by the pandemic. This is why the possible consequences of this extraordinary moment are so alarming.
The remarkable situation we face today provides an opportunity every authoritarian leaning leader dreams about, but few have the actual power (or bravado) to design. Emergency powers allow for a swift political response to extraordinary and rapidly changing situations.
At the same time, the state of exception offers an opportunity to demolish the rule of law and extend the limitations of civil liberties. We did not have to wait long to witness the tightening grip of power, by Viktor Orbán in Hungary or further purge of the judicial process and renewed attempts to tighten up the reproductive health rights by ruling Law and Justice in Poland.
Distrust in the democratic process facilitates the continuing trend favouring “strongmen”, who ought to just solve the problems by the rule of a firm hand, rather than make decisions through deliberation.
Keep a close eye
For example, in Lithuania during the COVID-19 crisis, the levels of approval of the Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga and the ruling party increased and were accompanied by calls neither to criticise the government nor question its decisions.
Finally, with restrictions being relaxed in the first half of May, the Health Minister himself noted that member of the press should not look for many arguments and logic behind the changes in emergency release policy. Unlike the “power grab” by those in power, such an approach to governance has long-time effects because it discards the democratic process to the absolute.
In short, this is the moment to keep an especially close eye on the conduct of governments.
However, the persistence of Eastern Europe’s democratic stalling (or in some cases, decline) is due to the weak political culture of participation and distrust. This begs the question – how will the practice of isolation affect the democratic culture?
With the already weak foundation for democracy, radical isolation presents new and possibly long-term challenges for democratic rule across the region. We also need to start asking the question about the long-term effects on democratic societies.
The truth is that this pandemic affects our daily conduct and uproots our sense of normality. The possible consequence of the virus will be societal, exceeding the specific reforms imposed by the ruling elites.
Deprived of deeply personal experiences
As the physical world shut down due to the virus, virtual access to it expanded rapidly: the online free courses from elite universities, the possibility to travel to public events and discussions all around the world in just one breath, the open doors to the world-class museums, the cinema festivals and live concerts streamed into personal computers.
In addition, social platforms allowed to continue work, education and social gatherings for many. Yet, in this seemingly 24/7 connected world, we experience a strange sense of isolation.
In heavy cases, isolation is imposed upon those deprived of deeply personal experiences, such as birth and death. People awaiting death alone, the relatives unwilling to say proper goodbyes, arranging funerals, the fathers restricted from witnessing the birth of their children, or new-borns left alone, as their infected parents were considered a threat.
The paradox of isolation is that we were asked to retreat from the world into the confines of our own homes, and yet, some were deprived of the most personal of all human experiences.
With vaccine still a long way from becoming reality, we are starting to treat each other as a potential threat, rather than family, friends, neighbours, which only increases the sense of isolation.
The interference in private life during this moment in time was swift and firm. If there is a lesson we can learn from the re-emergence of the authoritarian leaning political leadership in the region, it is that anti-democratic forces advance through changes to the public as well as private life.
In public life – the information and its flow are being regulated and manipulated; the public spaces are being reshaped and reformed to reflect a certain interpretation of the nation and its history (direct assault on historians across Poland for example); organisation of party-line political rallies and celebrations.
Here, the Naisiai annual summer festival, imitating folk and pagan traditions, is used as a promotion for the ruling party Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union. It relies on and further builds the cult of its leader Ramunas Karbauskis, as each year a small town of Naisiai becomes a utopian beacon of communal life, presented as an example of his leadership and care for the common people.
However, anti-democratic policies do not stop there. They extend the claim of power over personal lives, for example by introducing changes to reproductive health policies and as a result uprooting the sense of normality and personal agency.
Unfortunately, the effect of the pandemic is exactly this uprooting of normality, that became virtually a universal human experience.
The democratic life depends on our involvement: from family ties extending into neighbourhood communities, leisure clubs, church, community organisations and interest groups.
The revolutions that led to fall of the Soviet empire across the countries of Central and Eastern Europe revolution showed that the power of the people lies in communal experience – churches, neighbourhoods, clubs, social gatherings, where member trusted each other enough to plan and coordinate mass protests and not be reported to law enforcement.
In the same manner, studies across free societies show that people with a strong sense of belonging are more resilient to propaganda and radicalization. In the same manner, studies in the US found that the society became increasingly hostile and receptive to conspiracies following, for example, the closure of local media that allowed people to immerse in the life of local communities.
For post-totalitarian societies, still learning the art of politics through building trust and ties, rather than through manipulation and arbitrariness of state powers, isolation presents a specific democratic challenge.
The rhetoric of hostility, explored by ruling elites for the several past years serves not only a purpose of convincing citizens of the malice of “the strangers” – immigrants, liberal elites, or during the pandemic. The goal is to isolate citizens from each other and prevent them from building trust.
When the pandemic started, the perceived threat to society shifted towards the global traveller and the returning citizen. This specific internal enemy rhetoric may be sustained long after the emergency state is recalled and can serve as a political strategy to further citizen isolation.
The feeling of distrust is echoed today by people calling on law enforcement when their neighbours disobey the quarantine rules or justifying mandatory, forced isolation (in the early stage of the pandemic in Lithuania, the government forced all returning citizens in government assigned hotels). No action of citizens is possible against the arbitrariness of power when people are isolated from one another.
Lastly, it needs to be mentioned that the emptied public squares are not only a space of civil action and resistance to power, but also helps us advance the “democratic” muscles for dialogue debate and deliberation. The virtual spaces provided for the possibility to close ourselves off in non-critical information bubbles.
It is exactly the randomness of the public spaces that offer unexpected and even surprise encounters with vastly different people. Such encounters force us to get informed, to think through and argue our own positions.
Hope for the future?
Living in the post-totalitarian space, we are taught that it is indeed the right to privacy our parents and grandparents were deprived off and this, usually is seen as a key benefit of the free, democratic society.
However, what this pandemic exposed is how strongly our sense of self is rooted in the world outside our home and the sense of normality is supported by the presence of others.
The importance of community re-emerged during isolation. It exposes how much we all gain personally from engagement with others that frankly have little to do with our direct political participation.
It is the freedom of movement and liberty to choose varied and multiple forms of engagement that make the paramount of a democratic society and its core benefit even for those who are permanently sceptical about the democratic process. Potentially, this experience of self-isolation would once again help renew the trust in the democratic regime.
More importantly, the pandemic became a global event requiring a universal response. This, broadly speaking, is the essence of democracy – individual action in concert with others. The small decisions that each of us made, imposing the necessary limits on our everyday freedoms became a way of political contribution.
As a result, it is misleading to treat all the radical changes to our personal life as externally imposed power – the state-enforced value of public security at the expense of personal liberty. In free societies is it impossible to fully disrupt everyday life.
Governments, event those prone towards authoritarianism, have no means of global and total control and surveillance over citizens.
The particular situation we are finding ourselves in today, emerged at least in part due to civil actions, individually in concert with others – by the willingness to suspend normality and expose oneself to many new risks, such as financial damages.
The suspension of the public life and isolation became an act of personal responsibility for the wellbeing of our families, neighbourhoods and communities – hence it brought back the experience of direct action the effect of decisions on our immediate, yet public surroundings.
Long-term societal effect
Finally, we have witnessed civil society power in action. Forced into isolation, citizens retreat to new ways of self-organisation, swiftly responding to the needs of health care professionals, organising food for them, organising support for elderly people, or throwing the means of production towards protection gear for essential workers, outreaching to those dependent on social services.
Along with the economic and social turmoil on a global level, personal isolation and its fuelled distrust will have a long-term societal effect in democracies, extending well beyond the actual pandemic emergency.
The extraordinary political situation we, as democratic societies, are navigating though at this moment is also the result of collectively binding decisions, not simply the overreach of the government into the civil liberties and private lives.
This should become a lesson in how we reinforce our democratic way of life.