COVID-19 has posed an enormous challenge to political systems’ ability to cope with the human and economic disruption caused by the virus. Given its global scale, the pandemic spurred international cooperation in some instances, such as with the G20 and the WHO-driven Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. However, it also generated competitive dynamics in the international arena, notably between democracies and autocracies. Since the pandemic’s early days, the latter appeared better placed to provide a more efficient response than democratic systems, thanks to their fast decision-making and capability to impose restrictions on citizens' freedoms, including quarantine measures necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Stemming from this debate, this dossier aims to explore how authoritarian regimes have responded to the pandemic in different regions around the world, and how their responses impact international relations and citizens’ lives. The contributions from both established and younger experts provide a comprehensive perspective – in terms of geographic representation and subject matters – on the links between authoritarianism and the pandemic.
Autocracies and the pandemic: Are we asking ourselves the right question?
Marlene Laruelle gives an overview of the ethical and analytical implications of the question of authoritarian states’ efficiency during the pandemic. From her perspective, reactions to the pandemic depend not so much on the nature of political systems, but rather on certain features of national cultures, such as individuals’ compliance with collective habits, sense of civic duty, public trust, and respect for government decisions, regardless of any big “civilizational” divide. She also warns against the “pockets of illiberalism in liberal democracies” that speak volumes about the difficult balance between security/protection and liberty/privacy even in the most consolidated democracies. Tímea Drinóczi and Agnieszka Bień-Kacała provide a clear example of “pockets of illiberalism” in the EU by describing the case of Hungary and Poland. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the two EU member states have progressively slipped further towards authoritarianism. However, rather counterintuitively, this process was not driven by the abuse of emergency powers but rather by “normal time” measures such as ordinary legislation, parliamentary resolutions – which might have been even more harmful to democracy – rule of law, and human rights protection. In this regard, Maryna Shevtsova argues that civil society organizations and activists in authoritarian regimes face new challenges due to the accelerated illiberal agenda of their countries’ leaders. Taking Russia, Belarus, and Turkey as examples, she demonstrates that during the last one and a half years authoritarian leaders have enforced excessive control and surveillance as well as discriminatory restrictions on freedom of assembly, movement, and speech.
The need to pay attention to national peculiarities is also the main takeaway of Fred Eboko’s piece on how different African states managed the pandemic. Similar to what happened with national reactions to the HIV epidemic, “national trajectories” count more than regime types when it comes to assessing the quality of states’ responses. Eboko’s call for less simplistic views on this matter resonates with Marsin Alshamary’s analysis of the importance of public trust in government institutions for an efficient management of the pandemic. Focusing on the Iraqi case, she argues that across communities where trust in government officials is scarce, religious leaders assume public leadership and help direct people to follow health authorities.
Authoritarian responses to a global problem
If most authors seem to agree on the fallacy of the correlation between regime type and the quality of the response to the pandemic, others focus instead on unpacking different dimensions of the “authoritarian response”. What does an “authoritarian response” to COVID look like? Which political and/or economic aspects did authoritarian regimes privilege? Focusing on the economic recovery, David Dollar explains that while all the G20 countries had large increases in outstanding credit relative to their GDP to counter the recession, democracies used government borrowing to support consumption, whereas authoritarian countries directed credit to corporates. In the absence of accountability or public pressure, authoritarian leaders privileged channelling more resources through state enterprises or those controlled by regime cronies. Time will tell whether the authoritarian economic response will result into positive outcomes for autocracies’ economic performance and whether it will be more or less efficient than the democratic alternatives. In the meantime, as regards the technology and innovation sphere, competition between democracies and authoritarian states has risen dramatically over the last decade and even more after the pandemic. In this dossier, Samuele Dominioni contributes to the discussion arguing that authoritarian states face inner limits for sustainable economic growth and technological innovation because their institutions limit free entrepreneurship and, hence, do not unleash the full potential of innovation actors.
Increasing authoritarian cooperation?
Two articles in the dossier also looked at forms of authoritarian cooperation that the pandemic has either triggered or accelerated. Dionis Cenusa focused on how China and Russia attempted to strike a balance between domestic vaccination campaigns and a bold promotion of their vaccines abroad to bolster their geopolitical leverage. As is the case in an increasing number of fields today, Moscow and Beijing have been supporting each other’s claim about universalizing the access to vaccines and expressing criticism towards Western suspicions of Chinese and Russian vaccines. Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti and Giulia Sciorati examined another area of the growing China-Russia alignment: the digital space, especially when it comes to Internet governance (IG): on the one hand, Moscow has tightened state control over Internet resources, arguing for the establishment of intangible digital borders similar to a Chinese Great Firewall. On the other hand, China has also increasingly looked at Russia’s “foreign agent” system to regulate NGOs, limiting their online and offline activities. Internationally, both countries promote a state-centric IG reform, currently dominated by Western countries.
Domestic and International implications
All in all, the pandemic’s impact on authoritarian states has been twofold. Domestically, we have witnessed efforts to tighten the grip on democratic practices and the right to protests as well as offering alternative economic responses focused on helping businesses rather than supporting households. Nonetheless, despite the above, authoritarian responses were often not efficient as there are other factors that play into the success of managing COVID-19 (es. trust in political or religious institutions, historical patterns). Internationally, the pandemic sparked technological competition, furthered authoritarian alignment between Russia and China, and increased the challenges for international governance in the digital space. While success in responding to COVID-19 did not depend on authoritarian strategies, it is true that this pandemic has emboldened authoritarian leaders’ anti-democratic attitudes, which went beyond domestic borders and impacted relations with other states; ultimately having a profound effect on international governance.