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7 May 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 8:00am

How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union

Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals. 

By Felix Light

On 28 April, as Vladimir Putin delivered his latest address to the nation amid the coronavirus crisis, the mood was grim. “We have not passed the peak,” he warned. “We are now facing probably the most difficult stage of our struggle with this pandemic”.

After an illusory few weeks, in which Russia seemed to have avoided the disasters unfolding elsewhere, Covid-19 had finally begun to hit home. By early May, Russia had more confirmed active cases than any country apart from the US and UK. As cases surged by thousands and tens of thousands daily, Mikhail Mishustin, the newly-appointed prime minister, who had appeared visibly unwell during his boss’s speech, announced he was self-isolating, having himself contracted the virus.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Barely had Covid-19 escaped Wuhan when experts and propagandists began opining that authoritarianism was better equipped than democracy to make the tough public health decisions the pandemic demanded. 

For his part, Putin did more or less everything right. Far from the anti-scientific fantasies of Bolsonaro and Trump, leaders to whom he is often compared, Russia’s president moved quickly to close his country’s borders, build brand-new prefab hospitals in record time, and aggressively enforce lockdown orders.

None of it worked. Despite a self-isolation regime tougher than most in Europe, data from Citymapper suggests daily life in Moscow and St Petersburg continues at a rate alarmingly higher than in the rest of the continent. In provincial cities, according to a self-isolation index compiled by Russian internet giant Yandex, the picture is worse. In late April Vladikavkaz, a city in Russia’s south, had major anti-lockdown protests broken up by police. Putin may be saying the right things, but much of his country isn’t listening.

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Outside Russia, other post-Soviet strongmen are acquitting themselves badly in the anti-Covid struggle. In Central Asia, the presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have opted to deny, improbably, that Covid-19 has crossed their borders, raising suspicions of a cover-up. Meanwhile in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the dean of former Soviet dictators, has alternated between denying the coronavirus threat and prescribing vodka, the sauna and tractor-driving as cures. Having refused to bow to medical advice and implement a lockdown regime, he now presides over the worst Covid-19 outbreak in eastern Europe, outside of Russia.

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Though much of this has hinged on individual rulers’ personal eccentricities, there is a deeper reason behind the failure of dictatorships against coronavirus. Ironically, post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.

“Post-Soviet authoritarian states are often associated with images of strong coercive power – for example, the violent response of law enforcement and security forces to opposition mobilisation,” says Ben Noble, a politics lecturer at UCL. “However, this should not be conflated with their ability to implement public policies, including enforcing laws and collecting taxes – something these states as a group do not perform well on.” 

This chimes with a 2018 study by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, which put Russia’s state capacity, a measure of its governmental strength, on par with Argentina and Mauritius, and substantially below neighbouring eastern European democracies. In other words, authoritarian regimes may actually be deeply unsuited to the radically expanded states and interventionist policies that coronavirus demands. 

“In non-democratic societies, where the authorities are not held accountable by the people through free and fair elections, the willingness of citizens to obey lockdown instructions might be lower than in democracies”, suggests Noble.

This rings true in the former Soviet Union where, if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours. In the Baltic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – all longstanding EU-member democracies with strong state institutions – have pulled off one of Europe’s most impressive anti-pandemic responses, driving daily case increases down to single digits, while posting some of the highest per-head testing statistics in the world.

“Before the pandemic, people were very critical of the government,” says Margarita Seselgyte, a professor of political science at Lithuania’s Vilnius University. “But it has been seen to do a good job, and society has rallied behind the lockdown measures.”

More impressive still is Georgia. The South Caucasian republic is dramatically poorer, more turbulent, and has much weaker institutions than the wealthy, stable Baltics. It is, however, broadly speaking, a democracy and one that has managed, through a mix of timely, draconian shutdowns, and public buy-in, to keep its case count consistently low, despite a stretched and ailing health system.

Though both Georgia and the Baltics, as small, relatively sparsely populated countries, have undoubtedly benefited from geography, their responses have underlined democracy’s public health advantages. In all four, the perceived non-partisanship of the doctors and scientists leading the response has rallied the public behind harsh lockdown measures which enjoy broad public legitimacy.

However, according to Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think tank, democracy has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions.

“We have elections due in the autumn, and the government was already unpopular before Covid-19. If something had gone wrong with the response, they would have been blamed, so there was enormous pressure on them to get it right.”

Felix Light is a journalist reporting on Russia and the North Caucasus