The pandemic was supposed to be great for strongmen. What happened?
From Trump to Lukashenka, authoritarians are discovering that this isn’t their kind of crisis.
For an Eastern European of my generation, watching the current protests in Belarus is like going through an old photo album. The scenes of striking workers call forth the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, and the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. Moscow’s dilemma in whether to offer President Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime “friendly” support reminds me of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Soviet troops entered the Czech capital to scotch the popular Prague Spring. And the West’s striking incapacity to support civil society in Belarus screams of 1989 – though not in Eastern Europe, but in China. The question of the moment is whether Lukashenka will repeat the tragedy of Tiananmen.
What I have been thinking most about is not a protest movement of my youth, but a natural disaster. The uprising in Belarus stands in the shadow of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear catastrophe in human history, which took place in the neighbouring Soviet republic of Ukraine. Thirty-four years later, citizens have realised that nothing has changed in their country, and that they are ruled by a government ready to sacrifice its people in order to hide the regime’s decay.
This spring, when all of Europe was in lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Lukashenka informed Belarusians that there was nothing to fear. The best thing they could do, he said, was to ignore the global hysteria, head to football stadiums, and cheer on their favourite clubs. Many did so; many were also infected with the virus and died. We can only speculate how many Belarusians would have taken to the streets were it not for covid-19. But it is clear that the government’s feckless response to the pandemic was a turning point.
The protests in Belarus should force us to rethink the relationship between the pandemic and authoritarianism. Does the virus infect our societies with authoritarian governance or, alternatively, can it strengthen democratic immunity?
Some fear that more than any other crisis, a public health emergency like this one will impel people to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving personal security. The pandemic has increased tolerance of invasive surveillance and bans on freedom of assembly. In several Western countries – including the United States and Germany – there were public protests against mask mandates and lockdowns.
At the same time, the pandemic has eroded the power of authoritarians and the authoritarian-inclined. The instinctive reaction of leaders like Lukashenka in Belarus, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald Trump in the US was not to take advantage of the state of emergency to expand their authority – it was to play down the seriousness of the pandemic.
Authoritarians only enjoy those crises they have manufactured themselves.
Why are authoritarian leaders who thrive on crises and who are fluent in the politics of fear reluctant to embrace the opportunity? Why do they seem to hate a crisis that they should love? The answer is straightforward: authoritarians only enjoy those crises they have manufactured themselves. They need enemies to defeat, not problems to solve. The freedom authoritarian leaders cherish most is the freedom to choose which crises merit a response. It is this capacity that allows them to project an image of godlike power.
In pre-coronavirus Russia, Putin could “solve” one crisis by ginning up another. He reversed the decline in his popularity after the protest movement of 2011-12 by dramatically annexing Crimea. Trump could once claim that migrant caravans from Mexico were the greatest threat his country was facing, and disregard the civilisational threat of climate change. In the age of coronavirus, this is no longer possible.
There is just this one crisis, here and now: the pandemic. And governments are being judged by how they manage it. Authoritarian actors not only loathe crises they have not freely chosen, they also dislike “exceptional situations” that force them to respond with standardised rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviours like physical distancing, self-isolation, and handwashing are the best ways to halt the spread of the virus. A leader’s bold stroke of genius will be of no help. Following rules is not the same as obeying orders.
Even more threatening for authoritarian elites in the covid-19 world is that they lack the key advantage all democratic leaders enjoy: the luxury to survive even when appearing weak. Imagine that Putin orders all Russian citizens to wear masks and half of the population elect not to. For a democratic leader, this would be an embarrassment; for an authoritarian, it is a direct challenge to his power.
The ubiquity of the disease also poses challenges for authoritarians. Because the pandemic affects every country in the world, citizens can compare the actions of their governments with those of others. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism.
In this context, covid-19 has become deadly dangerous for ossifying authoritarian regimes like Lukashenka’s in Belarus. It is still possible that the patient will survive if it is put in an artificial coma in Putin’s emergency room. But it is now clear that the virus is a curse rather than a blessing for authoritarians like him.
In 1986 the Chernobyl tragedy made the people of the Soviet Union see the reality of the communist system hidden behind the state propaganda: it wasn’t all-powerful. In fact, it wasn’t even competent. The regime lasted only a few more years.
Ivan Krastev is ECFR co-chair, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna. This article first appeared in the New York Times.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.