Why cohesive states will fare better
Two months ago, Alexander Lukashenko, the dean of the post-Soviet dictators, stood in a peaked cap of cartoon proportions and told the Belarussian people that vodka and trips to the sauna would see them through the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. This attitude has been aped by other authoritarian leaders, who choose to downplay the virus’s effects or even outright deny its existence rather than have the shortcomings of their states exposed. Though the crisis has given rogue regimes the opportunity to implement strict security measures without the interference of the international community, it has also been unforgiving in highlighting the shortcomings of dictatorial government.
Of course, the experience of the pandemic was not meant to be like this. At its outset, authoritarian leaders chose to focus on its exogenous nature: COVID-19 was a problem for “them.” The presidents of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan denied the outbreak outright, insisting that their countries, though bordering China, would see the virus pass them by. This approach, however, came apart only too quickly. The modern dictatorship can no longer rely on insular states held together by the likes of the East German Stasi or the Iranian shah’s SAVAK. Pandemics are borderless and, in the modern, connected age, government failures are amplified within minutes.
Lukashenko’s derision of global reactions to the pandemic has resulted in the worst outbreak in Eastern Europe. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro refused to react to the pandemic and his country is now facing the worst outbreak in Latin America. In Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has gone to great lengths to extend his rule, the shortcomings of a large country that only has a state capacity similar to that of Mauritius has become incredibly clear. Where large dictatorships have failed, smaller and poorer democracies have kept the pandemic under control. The Balkan and Baltic economies have led Europe in this regard and, in Asia, Vietnam has stunned the World Health Organization with its response to the pandemic.
Control in authoritarian states is often at best a veneer, masking the vulnerability of systems that have prioritized kleptocracy over public service distribution. The ability to mobilize state security forces is often the single area of successful government functionality, with the performance of “bread and butter” functions otherwise subordinate. In Iran, where the post-revolutionary zeal of 1979 has worn thin with millennials, the government’s response to the crisis was found to be lacking. As the virus spread through the country like wildfire, the authorities were slow to stop the pilgrimage to Qom, with concerns over the regime’s legitimation trumping public health. Where observers had initially lauded the ability of authoritarian states to institute lockdown, the sheer pressure of the pandemic has rather exposed the basic functions of the state as being found wanting. When taxes aren’t collected, health care services suffer; where precise statistical data is snubbed, a pandemic cannot be dealt with efficiently.
Where the pandemic exposed the creaks in rickety regimes, it has also begun to provide opportunities for consolidation.
Zaid M. Belbagi
However, where the pandemic exposed the creaks in rickety regimes, it has also begun to provide opportunities for consolidation. China, at first the heart of the pandemic, used the opportunity to donate medical equipment abroad and diffuse false media messaging that the virus was a US military biological weapon. It then jailed pro-democracy activists and cast aside Hong Kong’s Basic Law, making full use of the situation to humble that region’s separatist ambitions. In Singapore, where the government’s tough stance on law and order has often drawn consternation, an emergency law was invoked that allowed extraordinary tracking of the movements of individuals infected with the coronavirus. The piracy protections that were relaxed to accommodate this effort are unlikely to be reinstated, meaning the outbreak has allowed the government unprecedented access to the movement of citizens.
In Hungary, where for a decade the Orban government has raised eyebrows for rolling back democratic norms and eroding the rule of law, the pandemic has allowed for the ushering in of an emergency bill giving the prime minister sweeping powers to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date. Enveloped within the bill are vague pretexts upon which the government may imprison journalists for up to five years and, more worryingly, the legal justification for ruling without parliament on the presumption that its gathering would spread the virus. The open-ended nature of such measures worldwide has given governments the ability to restrict movement, ban public gatherings, censor social media, seize property, and declare martial law with an impunity unseen for decades.
Invariably, it is cohesive states that are able to withstand crises and, though authoritarian regimes may have achieved quick wins through the opportunities presented to them by chaotic circumstances, it is how they are able to cope with what will follow that is important.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).