It seems that not only the economy and health care systems, but also human rights and democracy have proven particularly fragile during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in more consolidated democracies, governments did not always succeed in ensuring that all the restrictions were necessary and proportionate to the threat to the lives of their citizens. According to the Freedom House report, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in more than 80 countries. As the vaccination campaign is advancing worldwide, although in a patchy way, civil society organizations and activists in countries led by authoritarian regimes face new challenges of coping with the consequences of the accelerated illiberal agenda of their countries’ leaders. During the last one and a half years, one could observe how authoritarian leaders introduced excessive control and surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedom of assembly, movement, and speech, often enforced by police or the military. In this regard, this article looks at the strategies that authorities in Russia, Belarus, and Turkey have chosen to use the crisis to deal with civil society activism and strengthen their own position.
“Double standards” in Russia and Belarus’ Covid-19 restrictions
Russia’s state authorities have been using Covid-19 restrictions as quite an efficient tool against civil society activism and mass mobilization since the beginning of the pandemic. Starting on March 10, 2020, regional and federal authorities in Russia gradually started banning public events. It is hard to deny the importance of the efforts to prevent the Covid-19 spread, yet in the case of Russia, the restrictions proved to be rather selective. Despite the pandemic, events such as the Red Square book festival or the Victory Parade with thousands of participants and visitors took place in Moscow in summer 2020 and spring 2021. At the same time, local NGOs and watchdog organizations reported harsh restrictions applied not only to protest actions with a large number of participants but even to single-person pickets during the same period. Mass detentions took place on July 15, 2020, with Covid-19 as a pretext, as several hundred people showed up in Pushkin Square to protest peacefully against the results of voting on Constitutional amendments.
The beginning of 2021 for Russia was marked by mass protests provoked by the arrest of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist. Even though by March-April 2021, the government had largely eased Covid-19 measures nationwide, these measures have been continuously used as a justification (among others) for arresting civil society activists. For example, on March 13, 2021, 200 persons were detained at a forum hosted by the United Democrats in Moscow for “breaking Covid-19 protocol”. Mass arrests took place in April 2021, again often with health regulations as one of the reasons for disrupting the peaceful gathering. Covid-19 restrictions, however, did not stop Russia from holding a celebration to mark the anniversary of the occupation of Crimea at one of Moscow’s largest stadiums, bringing to one place tens of thousands of people.
The situation with Covid-19 in neighboring Belarus has been even more complicated. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the country’s long-standing autocratic leader, denied the seriousness of the threat. The medical professionals who spoke up about the danger of the pandemic faced repercussions to various extents. When an unprecedentedly large wave of peaceful protests swept the country after the contested August 9 re-election of Lukashenka, the medical workers took to the streets. This time not only did they have to take care of people suffering from Covid-19, but also of numerous victims of brutal police violence. Since then, there has been an ongoing crackdown on healthcare workers, including multiple arrests, imposed fines, and administrative charges. Numerous doctors and nurses have been fired due to their political views.
Denying growing numbers and having claimed several times that Belarus has overcome Covid-19, Lukashenko at the same time blames the protesters for creating obstacles for the authorities to prevent the spread of the pandemic whenever it serves his purposes. It is worth noting that the protesters usually wear masks and try to keep social distance, while in detention they are being held in overcrowded cells against all sanitary norms. Similarly, the Covid-19 restrictions were also used not to allow independent international observers to be present at the presidential election polling places or to prevent human rights lawyers from visiting civil society activists in detention.
The Turkish case
Further from the former Soviet republics, across the Black Sea, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) did their best to use pandemic times to severely tighten their authoritarian grip over the country, especially after suffering a resounding defeat in 2019, when they lost the country’s major cities to the opposition. Several laws and regulations have been introduced to restrict opposition, civil society activists, and NGOs – all under the pretext of preventing Covid-19 from spreading and fighting terrorism –. For example, in December 2020, the parliament passed a bill that introduced annual inspections of NGOs by the Interior Ministry during which the Ministry can deem NGOs’ work unlawful, suspend their members, and impose severe fines.
Erdoğan also used his presidential power to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe instrument aimed at preventing gender-based violence. Erdoğan claimed it “ruins families and encourages homosexuality” even though, according to the polls, 52% of the population disapproved of this decision. After peaceful protests on March 8, International Women’s Day, a criminal investigation was opened against 18 women’s rights activists. The Istanbul police detained 13 of them, including a 17-year-old teenager, for “insulting” the president, a criminal offense punishable with a one to four-year prison sentence according to Turkish law (which violates international freedom of expression). As in late April 2021, when a strict lockdown was imposed on Turkey following a rapid increase in Covid-19 cases, and the police detained more than 200 activists during the May-day demonstrations. While the health measures in the country may be fully justified, hardly the same can be said about the above-mentioned and other restrictions and actions targeting civil society activists and political opposition.
More challenges call for more international solidarity
These three cases show how the Covid-19 pandemic provided authoritarian governments with a dangerous combination of increased surveillance and civil liberties restrictions partially justified, for the frightened public, by the stressed needs for public safety and “greater societal good”. Civil society organizations and activists, political opposition to the ruling regime, and human rights defenders have often suffered greatly from this situation and continue to face consequences of limited rights and freedoms. Indeed, both the EU and the US imposed sanctions on Belarus and Russia for their HR abuses, while verbally condemning Turkey. Yet, the closure of the borders dictated by the pandemic increases the sense of isolation of the citizens of authoritarian states. As the world slowly gets back to pre-Covid-19 life, the question remains whether there will be more consolidated efforts to protect democracy in “wider Europe” through more solidarity with civil society activists in the countries where they desperately need it.