The coronavirus in Eastern Europe: Avoiding another Chernobyl

Eastern Europe has so far not seen an outbreak of the coronavirus as severe as that in the west of the continent. But the situation…

Kremlin.ru CC BY

Eastern Europe has so far not seen an outbreak of the coronavirus as severe as that in the west of the continent. But the situation is changing. The number of reported infections in Russia has increased significantly in the past week, amid concerns that the numbers from the region are not reliable. Eastern European countries are less prepared than their western counterparts and are already burdened with multiple challenges, including frozen and not-so-frozen conflicts, fragile institutions, and very weak public finances. Of course, each country is dysfunctional in its own way.

Russia

By 1 April, Russia had reported 2,777 cases of coronavirus, and 24 deaths from the disease. Moscow is the epicentre of the outbreak, with more than 1,000 cases, and the situation is now developing quickly: the authorities are taking measures similar to those in other countries – such as closing schools and ordaining country-wide self-isolation to slow the pandemic. However, they were slow to acknowledge the global nature of a pandemic and quick to jump to conclusions about Europe’s alleged inability to manage a crisis.

As Europe started to battle covid-19, with the epicentre in Italy and Spain, the anti-Western narrative in Russia flourished. The Russian leadership used the grave situation in Europe to validate its ideas about the sunset of Europe, the European Union’s inability to manage crises, European human rights abuses, a shutdown of democracy, and, eventually, the death of liberalism. Somewhat precociously, the Kremlin interpreted the low level of contamination in Russia as proof of the viability of the Russian model and the collapse of Europe.  Many citizens bought into the narrative. In a viral video, a Russian rapper only half-jokingly explained why Russians don’t get coronavirus and told the ‘civilised world’ not to panic. In a symbolic gesture, Russia (like China) sent a convoy of medical supplies to help Italy.

Russia also cancelled international flights and focused on other issues, such as the constitutional reform that would give President Vladimir Putin the option to remain in power until 2036. The country was supposed to approve or reject the reform in an ‘all-Russian vote’ (not to be mistaken with a ‘referendum’, which is a toxic word in Russia) on 22 April. The authorities were determined to go ahead with the vote until 25 March, when Putin decided that the coronavirus warranted a postponement. In an address to the nation, he announced that the following week would also be a nationwide paid holiday, but all citizens were expected to remain at home.

Initially, the military parade planned for 9 May was of much concern to the Kremlin. Given that 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war, Putin planned it to be a major event at which he would host the world’s leaders and make himself acceptable again. As US President Donald Trump and others started cancelling their participation in the event, this parade of great geopolitical importance was in danger. There was a debate about whether it should be organised without guests. Now, the discussion has died down: clearly, the parade is not among the Kremlin’s main concerns anymore.

As Russia played it cool, rumours started to spread that the authorities might be hiding the real numbers of the infected and the dead. Some argued that, if they continued to do so, this might lead to a Chernobyl effect in which disappointed citizens would eventually bring down the government. The government has tried to take control of the information space: on 31 March, lawmakers passed legislation imposing severe punishment on people who spread false information about the virus. Those convicted of the offence risk up to five years in prison.

The coronavirus is unlikely to be another Chernobyl, because all Russians will soon understand that this is a global problem: a pandemic. It is not a Chinese virus or a European virus, and no one is immune from it. The Russian authorities seem to have now accepted this and are adopting many measures taken in other countries, while publishing figures that are credible. However, it remains to be seen how Russia’s governance system and hospitals will cope with the crisis, how Russians will interpret the situation, and how the Kremlin will instrumentalise the crisis in its geopolitical games.

(Joanna Hosa and Tatiana Stanovaya)

Ukraine

By 1 April, there were 669 coronavirus cases in Ukraine – most of them in Kyiv, but with a hot spot in the western border region of Chernivtsi (see the regularly updated data here). There had been 17 reported deaths from the disease.

Despite the change of government in March, the Ukrainian authorities’ response has been swift and robust. On 12-13 March, they closed most borders. The authorities also shut schools and prohibited large gatherings, albeit only for three weeks. And they imposed draconian transport restrictions, including the closure of the Kyiv metro; a ban on inter-city travel; and a requirement that all those travelling on buses, trams, and the popular marshrutkas (mini-buses) have both a pass and a face mask. These moves are especially significant given that, due to their country’s poor infrastructure, Ukrainians rely heavily on public transport. On 25 March, the authorities converted restrictions in the regions into a national state of emergency, due to last for a month. 

There are further problems ahead. Millions of Ukrainians work abroad, and are among the first to be laid off; returning migrant workers might bring the coronavirus with them; and the economy will take a big hit from a reduction in remittances, which before the crisis were worth $1 billion per month. Ukraine’s health system is resource-poor in its access to testing kits, respirators, and other equipment, but some parts of the Soviet legacy – such as big hospitals and large numbers of hospital beds – may be advantageous.

The coronavirus also compounds other challenges. The Ukrainian government is using the direct and indirect impact of the crisis as part of its request for more money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A mooted $5.5 billion loan has already been raised to $8 billion, with more of the money front-loaded for budget support. Without the coronavirus crisis, negotiations between the parties might have dragged on as Ukrainian oligarchs resisted the IMF’s preconditions. Instead, Ukraine’s biggest holding company, DTEK, has missed interest repayments. And, on 30 March, parliament was forced to hold a special session to pass key banking and land reform bills. The central bank will likely prove to have been optimistic in its projection of a 5-percent fall in GDP in 2020.

Some observers have argued that transport restrictions provide cover for the government to minimise potential protests over controversial concessions in the Ukraine-Russia peace process, particularly Kyiv’s decision to start negotiations with the authorities of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) for the first time since the war began in 2014. The restrictions make it difficult to organise a protest in Kyiv or a coordinated national campaign. Meanwhile, the DNR and LNR have banned travel across the line of contact.

(Andrew Wilson)

Belarus

Until only a few days ago, Belarus had a similar number of coronavirus cases per capita to Ukraine. Yet, by 1 April, Belarus – whose population is less than a quarter of the size of Ukraine’s – had reported only 169 confirmed cases, and two deaths from the disease. The country has introduced fewer restrictions than Ukraine: as yet, there have been no large-scale quarantine measures, internal restrictions on freedom of movement, or school closures.

President Alexander Lukashenko has taken a risk by continuing to play his normal populist game, attributing fears about the virus to “psychosis”. “There are no viruses here”, he claimed; “did you see any of them flying around? I don’t see them either”. Belarus is the only country in Europe whose football league is still active; the new season started on 14 March. Less than two weeks later, however, parliament was considering a package of further measures.

The ongoing row between Belarus and Russia over oil subsidies had been cooling somewhat with the fall in the global oil price, but it flared up again when Moscow unilaterally closed their border on 16 March. Lukashenko reacted disdainfully, pointing out that Russia had more cases than Belarus, and that the sides had put in place measures to create a ‘green corridor’ for transit trade to Russia through Belarus.

Belarus worries that its already weak economy will be indirectly plunged into recession, as neighbouring economies – Russia’s especially – introduce protectionist measures and experience deflation. Unlike Ukraine, Belarus has had little recent dialogue with the IMF. Belarus has warned it may be forced to “restructure some part of its external state debt” and hold off on payments due in 2020.

(Andrew Wilson)

Moldova

The Moldovan authorities reported the country’s covid-19 “patient zero” on 7 March. By 1 April, they had officially confirmed that 353 citizens had been infected, and four killed, by the disease. Moldova has quarantined more than 27,000 people that have potentially been infected. Around half of the country’s administrative regions have reported infections, with the capital city hit most severely.

Overall, there is widespread doubt about official data on the coronavirus, given the government’s political incentives to demonstrate that it has responded effectively. With a presidential election expected in autumn, the stakes are extremely high for the Russophile president, Igor Dodon, who de facto heads the governing Socialist Party (PSRM). A lack of test kits for those who have been in contact with infected Moldovans also casts doubt on official statistics.

The authorities seem to understand the severity of the situation. The government asked parliament to approve a state of emergency on 16 March, when the country officially had only 29 infected cases. Even before that, the authorities had closed markets, restaurants, and other public places, sparing only grocery stores, pharmacies, and petrol stations. They also restricted air and rail travel. But a large part of the population has not taken the pandemic seriously, resulting in multiple reported violations of public gathering restrictions across the country.

The government declared a state of emergency only after finalising by-elections in Hincesti electoral district, which a PSRM candidate won. This drew significant criticism from the opposition and civil society, indicating that the voting process had created additional risks of infection. Indeed, following the 15 March election, the authorities placed two villages in Hincesti under quarantine, and the district became the second-most affected area in the country, with 19 cases.

The state of emergency does not yet mean a total lockdown, but it does affect economic activity across the country. Small and medium-sized enterprises are suffering losses and have requested state support. The government does not seem willing to cancel taxes for businesses, claiming that the state budget cannot support the measure. But, surprisingly, the government reportedly plans to spend MDL 157,000 (~€8,000) to issue commemorative medals celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory in the second world war.

Multiple doctors have complained anonymously about a lack of protective equipment and disinfectants, with many threatening to quit their jobs or take leave. The government has dismissed these reports as inaccurate, insisting that it is well prepared to deal with the pandemic.

But the authorities remain very sensitive to the criticism that their pandemic response has been slow or otherwise inadequate. The Moldovan Security and Information Service – the national intelligence agency – has blocked more than 50 websites it accuses of disseminating coronavirus-related disinformation.

As government critics point out, this process has not touched Russian-funded websites that spread disinformation. In fact, one of Dodon’s advisers promoted the specious idea that opposition leader Maia Sandu asked the EU to block the import of Moldova’s agricultural products. Various EU officials – including the head of EU delegation to Moldova, as well as the neighbourhood commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi – denied this story. Given its efforts so far, the government could exploit the state of emergency to institute authoritarian measures designed to consolidate its power.

(Dumitru Minzarari)

Georgia

By 1 April, 115 people in Georgia were infected with covid-19. The Georgian government’s strategy has been to avoid the spread of the virus in the country at any cost, fearing that the country’s weak health system will be unable to cope with the pandemic. The government implemented its first measures in mid-February, stopping flights from China and Iran, but not those from Italy and Western Europe. This explains why the majority of infected people entered Georgia from Italy. Georgia has also imported cases from Spain, France, the Czech Republic, the United States, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

Georgia suspended flights with Western Europe on 10 March, and shut its land borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey a few days later. Interestingly, Georgia closed its land border with Russia last of all (despite having had no diplomatic relations with the country since their 2008 war). Georgia closed its nurseries, schools, and universities on 12 March.

On 21 March, the government declared a state of emergency for one month, shutting down all “non-essential” commerce and banning public gatherings of more than nine people. Most opposition parliamentarians voted for the emergency law. Controversially, the Georgian Orthodox Church is exempt from the ban – meaning that masses and other religious ceremonies continue. Various Georgian officials have issued statements about the lack of risks from religious meetings. Even Georgia’s leading virologist, Paata Imnadze, has refused to criticise the decision. The government’s stance on the Church is alarming, as it demonstrates the weakness of state institutions and of secular politics in Georgia.

Nevertheless, the authorities and the ruling party claim to have succeeded in managing the pandemic, frequently comparing Georgia’s relatively low infection numbers with the “failure” of Italy, Spain, France, and the US. One of the sources of this relative success is the Lugar Research Laboratory, which opened in Georgia in 2011 with the support of the US government. The lab, which operates under the authority of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control, makes testing for covid-19 particularly rapid and efficient. Interestingly, the Russian media and the pro-Kremlin media outlets in Georgia have long spread conspiracy theories about the lab, accusing it of spreading various illnesses in Georgia and testing biological weapons on the Georgian population.

But, despite the centre’s successes, the covid-19 crisis has already had very significant economic consequences in Georgia. Tourism and related businesses comprise a huge part of the Georgian economy. The country’s currency, the Lari, has lost almost 20 percent of its value relative to the US dollar since the crisis began.

Politically, the coronavirus crisis hit in the middle of a row over the voting system for parliamentary elections, scheduled for autumn. On 8 March, under pressure from the West, the ruling Georgian Dream party reached an agreement with the opposition under which the next parliament will have 120 MPs elected through the proportional system and 30 via the majoritarian system. The opposition is worried that the government will use the emergency to avoid implementing the agreement.

(Thornike Gordadze)

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Deputy Director, Wider Europe programme
Senior Policy Fellow