The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the Balkans, too. While to date there are more than 40,000 registered cases, and at least 1,000 reported deaths, what is even more concerning is the authoritarian drift of some countries in the region - especially Serbia with the highest number of positive tests for COVID-19 (8,800) – in the fight against the pandemic.
Lengthy curfews, misinformation and state control over the media are only a few of the elements that exacerbated an already ongoing tendency in the Western Balkans: the virus of authoritarianism.
A suspension of democracy
The pandemic has led to the suspension of elections in North Macedonia (scheduled for 12 April) and Serbia (26 April), but also to the suspension of the rule of law, as parliaments have been sidelined in handling the emergency. The state of emergency has in fact enabled the strongmen in the region to position themselves above other state institutions and, literally, to take total control of the situation. The very decision to declare a state of emergency led to the fall of the government in Kosovo led by Albin Kurti, as part of a longstanding rivalry with president Hashim Thaci, who is expected to give the mandate to form a new executive in the coming days. In Belgrade, President Aleksandar Vucic imposed a state of emergency, bypassing the parliament and exploiting the situation to further downplay democratic and individual freedoms in a one-man-show campaign with electoral purposes.
Fear, intimidation, distrust
Indeed, COVID-19 provided a perfect pretext to catalyse the concentration of power in already weak democracies, but the reasons for the current authoritarian drift are structural, too. On the one hand, leaders in the Balkans are aware of their weak healthcare systems – mainly due to the lack of structural investments in the last twenty years of so-called “transition” – and here comes the first feature of their renewed autocracy: fear. A fear shared by citizens, too, as the lack of adequate healthcare has been contributing to the emigration of thousands of citizens from the Balkans, especially certified doctors and nurses.
The fear thus lead to the need of the state to control – or take control over – every aspect of society, in order to monitor the curfew and social distancing. In Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, authorities published the identities of persons ordered into obligatory self-isolation on the government’s websites, in the very first days of the coronavirus outbreak. As a further violation of privacy, the Montenegrin government also created an app which enables the geolocation of persons in self-isolation. In Serbia, the fear of an Italian scenario was played on by President Vucic in a different way. “I'm glad that people are in fear, they will now be more disciplined”, he said in late March at a press conference during which he also listed the biggest cemeteries in Serbia, saying “they will be too small, if people won't obey”.
And if fear is not enough, here comes intimidation. Serbia – like other countries – introduced very strict curfews, especially for people over 65, who are allowed outside only in a very limited range of time during the week (in the very first weeks of restrictions: only a few hours before dawn on Sundays). From April 17 to 21, the weekend of Orthodox Easter, Serbia had a 84-hour prohibition on going outside, making it its longest curfew. During these periods of times – in Serbian language policijski čas, literally “the police's hour” – there have also been cases of abuses by the police on citizens who allegedly violated the ban.
Finally, fear and intimidation cannot be understood without a complementary element: distrust. In particular, the mutual distrust between the state and citizens. Years of lack of political accountability have increased the distrust of citizens in the state and vice-versa the state’s inability to guarantee proper healthcare tends to shape and influence citizen's behavior, with the limitation of individual freedoms. As pointed out by the latest Balkan in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) brief on the pandemic’s effects in the region, “the primary focus of the state has been enforcing physical distancing through restrictive measures and repression, including steep penalties, instead of education and communication. This approach reveals that the relationship between the state and society across the region is shaped by mutual distrust.” An approach that authorities use to hide the weakness of the healthcare system.
Fake vs news
One of the most affected sectors in the time of coronavirus is the media. In an attempt to uniform all the information regarding the emergency, governments clamp down on independent media outlets that are not sharing “official information”, in a way similar to what Prime Minister Viktor Orban does in Hungary. On April 1, Serbian journalist Ana Lalic was arrested after reporting about the conditions and equipment of hospitals in Vojvodina – a detention later on nullified on the “special request of President Vucic”, as said by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, that further shows how Vucic decides about everything and everyone's destiny. In Serbia, this behavior by the state came after a month, the first of the pandemic, during which press conferences by officials, pro-regime tabloids and TV shows were all dominated by “experts” who more than others contributed to sharing misinformation. “Coronavirus is the most ridiculous virus in the world […] women are immune, they can go shopping in Milan, there will be sales”, said at a press conference in late February a doctor and member of the task force against the spread of the virus, Branimir Nestorovic. A statement that – despite the fact that Vucic (who was at the conference, and smiled at it) later tried to negate it – shows both the preparedness of the state in the very first days of the pandemic, and who is really sharing fake news and misinformation. The number of ventilators currently working in Serbia is the best example. Asked about their number, Prime Minister Brnabic said “it's a state secret”, while later on President Vucic said Serbia had bought 2,700 ventilators, 570 of which are already in hospitals. However, there is no confirmation about the purchase of ventilators as information comes mostly from the president's cabinet.
As a matter of fact, lying is a typical reaction of those who can't both hold responsibility and make strategies for the future. It seems people have understood that the Serbian government is mainly lying and that restrictions are only strengthening Vucic's regime. In the last few days a spontaneous protest - Bukom protiv diktature ("Noise against dictatorship") - has begun: every day at 8:05 PM (right after the applause for medical staff) people look out from their windows and make noise with pots and other improvised instruments.
An eternal emergency?
Like many other countries in Europe, the Western Balkans are not making long-term plans. The pandemic will most probably hit the region hard, especially those economies – like Albania's – that are strictly dependent on imports from some EU member states, which will undergo economic recession, or those – like Montenegro – highly dependent on tourism. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2020 there will be an economic recession of between 3% (Serbia) and 9% (Montenegro) across the Balkans. However, while economic forecasts say that in 2021 there will be a recovery, the great “sick man” in the region will most probably continue to be democracy. The pandemic has in fact sped up an autocratic drift, that found in the state of emergency its perfect habitat, and worsened an already weak rule of law. Moreover, experience from the past shows that while is very easy to limit personal freedoms it is also quite hard for authorities “to give back” certain rights. While COVID-19 will – hopefully – disappear, it would not be surprising if restriction and state-control will stand firm with the pretext of a never-ending emergency.