Eastern Europe and the Pandemic – a petri dish for totalitarianism?

Ghetto in Bulgaria – the largest in Europe

Joseph Healy writes: In Central and Eastern Europe the main threats to democracy have been in Hungary and Poland, though there are deep anti-democratic tendencies in other states also. The pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box for the Far Right; an opportunity to blame outsiders, foreigners and “the other” for the invading virus. A weak democratic structure and an already enfeebled economy and society, often with high rates of emigration and poor health systems make the region even more vulnerable to the ravages of the virus.

Hungary: Hungary has already been effectively a one-party state for some years now, ruled by the autocratic strong man Viktor Orban. The press and the opposition have been muzzled and the courts and the education system tightly controlled. Orban, using the excuse of the virus, has just laid an emergency decree before the Hungarian parliament, where his party has a large majority, which would effectively grant him dictatorial powers over the country. These powers would lead to a five year prison sentence for anyone accused of false reporting of the measures taken to defeat the virus or concerning anything related to the pandemic. This would lead to total censorship. It also allows the authorities to round up and imprison for 8 years any person who is considered a threat. One can see at once how this could be used by an authoritarian regime like Orban’s to arrest political opponents or critics. It would also ban referendums and elections indefinitely which many fear would lead to permanent rule by Orban.

Amnesty International Hungary, the Karoly Eotvos Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union argued that the state of emergency should not be outside the scope of the constitution. The groups said the special legal order cannot last forever and should be invoked for a specific period of time that can be prolonged if necessary. It would also allow the government to extend the state of emergency indefinitely without any review by MPs. Under the guise of the pandemic, Orban is making a power grab and proposing to turn Hungary from being a pseudo- democracy into a real dictatorship.

Poland: In Poland the PiS (Law and Justice) Party, a right-wing nationalist and ultra-Catholic party, firstly followed in the footsteps of Donald Trump denying that the virus threatened Poland at all. Then suddenly in late February, clearly alarmed by the growing number of cases in neighbouring Germany, where many Poles work, as well as in Poland itself, President Duda of the PiS Party called an emergency meeting of the parliament to discuss the crisis. The Polish health system has been ravaged by austerity for over 10 years now and was never very strong in the first place. It is further complicated by the brain drain of young doctors and nurses emigrating from Poland to find higher paid work in Western Europe. This means that about 30% of the Polish doctors expected to treat the virus are of retirement age and therefore in the category of people most at risk from the virus. The number of infectious disease units in Poland was cut from 119 to 79 in recent years in a country of 40 million people. The average monthly salary in Poland is 1,234 euros, a little more than a third of the EU average of 3,080 euros (2018). Many workers live on significantly less. Pensioners, in particular, can barely afford additional medical costs, often living on only 250 euros a month. These poorest layers of the population, often the most vulnerable to the virus, will also be the hardest hit by the economic and social consequences of the international coronavirus crisis. Much of the population who have to rely on the public health system have to wait sometimes years for ordinary surgery or medical procedures. The election in Poland last year was conducted in an atmosphere of xenophobia and homophobia by the ruling PiS party and if there was any way that the virus could be connected in some way with the LGBTQ community, as some form of “gay plague”, they would probably attempt to do it.

Bulgaria: With a centre-right government in power which already displays some of the totalitarian tendencies common across Eastern Europe, they tried to put a draconian law through parliament allowing widespread powers of detention by the police, including a prison sentence of several years for “spreading false rumours about the virus”. This proved too much for the President who vetoed the bill and asked parliament to reconsider. The parliament has agreed not to include those sections of the bill which the president vetoed. So some small victory for civil rights there. The Bulgarian health system however, displays many of the weaknesses of other health systems in the region. Years of emigration by the young to Western Europe plus decades of austerity have meant that a health system, which was never very sturdy in the first place, is now gravely weakened. A recent incident in Sofia demonstrated this when the doctors, who are mainly near retirement age, walked out en masse as they had not been provided with proper protective equipment! This problem of a lack of protective equipment is a major one in the region, as indeed it is in Spain and some other Western European countries. However, it must be borne in mind that health workers in Eastern Europe are paid a very low wage and without proper protection are literally putting their lives and those of their families in peril.

Bulgaria is one of the countries in Eastern Europe with a large Roma population and here the virus has led to a backlash against the Roma community and a hardening of what were already deeply ingrained anti-Roma prejudices. The military have erected checkpoints at the entrances and exits to all areas in Bulgarian cities with large Roma populations. Sometimes these have actually been real walls – the parallels with the historical construction of walled ghettoes for the Jewish community in Eastern Europe are shocking. This has happened in the cities of Sliven, Nova Zagora and Kazanlak. A senior member of the nationalist VMRO party, a junior government coalition partner, has urged authorities to “close the ghettos everywhere.”

“What if the ghettos turn out to be the real nests of contagion?” Angel Dzhambazki, member of the European Parliament and deputy leader of VMRO said in a statement. The Roma have also been targeted and accused of bringing the virus back from Italy and Spain where many of them have worked. Many Roma are already living in real poverty and many of the measures introduced hit them particularly hard. One Roma leader has referred to the fact that some Roma make a living by collecting materials from rubbish bins and that they can no longer do that. Bulgaria’s almost non-existent social welfare will also make life particularly harsh for the Roma. The pandemic feeds into all the centuries of institutionalised hatred of the Roma, which led to the community almost being wiped out in the Holocaust across Eastern Europe in the 1940s.

But Bulgarians and Romanians have themselves fallen foul of the closing of borders in the region. When Hungary shut its border refusing access to thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians working in Western Europe who wanted to return home, only finally allowing them through after huge queues had built up at the frontier, they had a taste of what it may feel like to be a refugee or Roma in Central and Eastern Europe.

Romania: Romania has many of the problems common across Eastern Europe in dealing with the crisis. Romanian doctors complain of having to work on patients without any basic protection some warning that infection rates among medical staff are bound to skyrocket! One doctor in Bucharest expressed his fears about infection: “No measure is certain. A friend from Italy told me that about 20% of the hospital personnel [were infected] despite wearing diving equipment, completely sealed. I had heard from someone in the field that 40% of global medical staff have become infected. They got infected, but at least they took the measures that need to be taken. What if you don’t take those either? Should we expect that as much as 90% of the medical staff gets infected? Doctors are more exposed, repeatedly. Our immunity exists, but at one point it says: Excuse me, I went to bed. What will happen when 60-70% of the medical personnel are infected?” (Romania Insider.com) The Minister for Health has just been forced to resign after promising on TV that all of Bucharest’s population would be tested for the virus, although Romania only has capacity to carry out 2000 tests per day and to test all of Bucharest would require 2 to 4 million tests! One of the big fears in both Romania and Bulgaria is that the Orthodox Easter which is their equivalent of Xmas here will lead to a large influx of Romanians and Bulgarians living in Western Europe, and without proper testing equipment, a huge increase in infections. The Romanian health system is also suffering from huge austerity cuts over the decades plus the same problem of many younger medical staff having travelled abroad.

The demography of Eastern Europe and the ramshackle health and welfare systems mean that the region will be hit particularly hard by the virus. Demographically Eastern Europe has a much older population than much of Western Europe and mirrors the demographic contours of a country like Italy. Clearly this is a result of years of poverty and emigration by the young, which EU subsidies have only marginally alleviated. The rise of racism and the Far Right in the region can be safely predicted. Without a sizeable Muslim immigrant population, or Jewish population following the Holocaust, the Roma are the community most in danger. In Albania, for example, there have been recent protests in towns by Roma claiming that with lockdown in force they are literally without food or medicines as emergency supplies are only being distributed among the non-Roma population by the local authorities. This has the makings of a disaster for the Roma communities in Eastern Europe. In states where there is already huge income inequality and no proper social safety net, combined with the scapegoating by the Far Right and others, we could see a huge threat to the lives of the Roma.

The long-term impact of the crisis politically in Eastern Europe for the EU may be profound. The Serbian president Vucic has already castigated the EU accusing it of ignoring the health crisis in Serbia and turning instead to China for assistance. Hungary, Poland and others have already been the most critical of EU policies on migration etc. If there is any indication of a pulling up of the drawbridge by Germany and others there will be a strong reaction in Eastern Europe reinforcing the pull towards Moscow and Beijing and away from Brussels. Without major support for the region from the EU and the ECB there is likely to be a toxic brew of resentment and anger and an increase in nationalism and Far Right support. The resulting economic fallout with expected huge increases in unemployment across Europe would also hugely impact Eastern Europe where many of its citizens work in low paid and precarious jobs in Western Europe and where they would be among those to lose their jobs first.

A region which has been historically poorer and politically less stable than Western Europe and has now been sucked dry for years by national oligarchs will now have to withstand a massive economic and health crisis. The Left has also been historically weak in Eastern Europe and the way lies open for a huge rise of the Far Right. What happens in Eastern Europe will hugely determine the future of both the EU and the European Left.


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