Eastern European countries adopting authoritarian measures in face of Covid

Analysis reveals widespread violations of international democratic freedoms in response to pandemic

Europe’s political approach to the coronavirus pandemic has divided down stark east-west lines, a Guardian analysis has found.

Five of 18 eastern European countries have registered major violations of international democratic freedoms since March 2020, according to research conducted by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, compared with none of 12 western European countries.

The research also shows that eastern European countries have been more likely to turn to abusive enforcement, disinformation and discriminatory measures, with the most common violation being restrictions on the media.

The worst violations were observed in Serbia, which recorded a violations score three times higher than the European average. Under a special regime implemented in a declared state of emergency, refugees, migrants and asylum seekers were selectively targeted and put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military. They were banned from leaving the centres, while support staff were prevented from entering.

Belgium was the only western European country where moderate misconduct occurred. The country recorded ethnic profiling during the pandemic, according to the V-Dem Institute, with abusive police practices disproportionately affecting minority ethnic communities.

The death of a 19-year-old man of north African descent during a police chase prompted anti-racism protests, with people demanding justice and accountability. Later, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (Cerd) issued a report expressing concerns about the discriminatory police-related acts.

Experts say such actions often follow Covid-19 measures set by the government and do not have a clear basis in the rule of law.

Dr Joelle Grogan, a senior lecturer in law at Middlesex University, found that experts from 24 out of 27 EU countries reported at least some concern regarding restrictive measures falling outside the legal powers of the government.

However, even if “nearly all countries struggle with balancing the rule of law with the intense pressure to act in an emergency”, she said this did not mean we should be equally concerned about all countries.

The Guardian analysis also revealed how some east-central European governments with a history of undermining democratic principles have exploited the pandemic to further spread anti-democratic practices.

In Slovenia, the government placed financial and legal restrictions on NGOs and changed environmental legislation under one of its coronavirus stimulus packages. As of 23 June 2021, the country was added to a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.

“Since the government came to power, it has used Covid-19 as a pretext to try to pass measures which affect basic human rights,” said Civicus, the global civil society alliance.

The Polish parliament recently passed a media bill that disfranchises TVN, Poland’s main private network, continuing the government’s push to control the media. The level of risk to Poland’s democratic liberties is more than three times that of the European average.

According to Grogan, there was deep concern for the “rule of law crisis with many EU states systematically undermining and dismantling democratic institutions”.

Alongside Hungary and Poland, substantial democratic declines were observed in Serbia, Turkey and Slovenia since 2010.

While democratic regimes remained rather stable in most of western Europe, four eastern European countries shifted down from liberal to electoral democracies, according to the V-Dem Institute. Two others – Hungary and Serbia – shifted down from electoral democracy to electoral autocracy.

For Grogan, the risk lies in democratic infringements in the name of emergency response becoming normalised. “The risk of normalising emergency is that ordinary expectations of what rights we can exercise without conditions are forgotten, and what decisions government should only make with permission are ignored: we can say we have a democracy, but not live in one.”

There is hope, however, since she argues authoritarianism fundamentally relies on public support. “For ordinary people – protest, objection and education [are] the best resistance against anti-democratic trends.”

The liberal democracy index, developed by the V-Dem Institute, evaluates the degree of democracy and the strength of democratic institutions in a particular country, with scores from 0 to 1. It measures the quality of elections, suffrage rights, freedom of expression and the media, freedom of association, constraints on the executive, and the rule of law. Comprised of several minor indices, it aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of a country’s quality of democracy.

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