Fear drives the state’s response to COVID-19 in Southeast Europe not the import of a Chinese model

by Vuk Vuksanovic

Photo: unsplash.com

The response of the Southeastern Europe (SEE) to the COVID-19 pandemics has been swift and marked by strong government restrictions, particularly in countries like Hungary and Serbia. This led some observers to doubt that illiberal leaders might use the extent crisis to tighten their authoritarian grip and many have feared that the countries worldwide would mimic Chinese authoritarian model of responding to the crisis. However, most of the countries of the region, while they indeed imposed severe restrictions, they did not do it because of the desire to emulate the Chinese model. Instead, what drove the SEE countries to respond the way they did were the weak health systems that their leadership did not want to see collapse.

As the pandemics reached the SEE countries the response was mostly rigorous. The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), the online research index within Blavatnik School of Government within the University of Oxford, that measures the stringency of government response to COVID-19, puts the SEE countries in the top category. Most countries in the region declared “high epidemic risk” while some like Serbia declared state of emergency.

In the regional and global chaos that followed the outbreak, China sticks out as its President Xi Jinping claims on both domestic and international front that his country has defeated the virus. The success China had in combating the outbreak was based on a highly coercive, draconian measures that entailed the use of Chinese sophisticated surveillance technology as well as repressive suppression of dissent and information concerning the outbreak.

Indeed, some of the scenes from the region draw resemblance to the scenes from China. As Hungarian parliament allows its Prime-Minister Victor Orban to rule by decree and stipulated jail sentences for those spreading disinformation on COVID-19 one can easily see the analogy with Chinese censorship and suppression of critics and alternative sources of information. The Atlantic magazine came out with an article titled “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy.” In Hungarian neighbourhood, the Balkans, the state of digital freedoms has declined significantly since the start of pandemics, expressed in enhanced surveillance, censorship, and restriction on the flow of information.

On surveillance front, Serbia is particularly striking. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in Serbia, in mid-March, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić openly stated that the state will employ surveillance techniques to monitor movement of Serbian citizens who returned from hotspots, like Italy. As Vučić told the press: “We follow telephone numbers, Italian above all. We are not tapping. We are following are they moving, people with Italian numbers in roaming – and yes, they are. (…) Do not try to trick us by leaving the phone in one spot [while moving] because we have found another way to track who violates the rules prescribed by the state, how and where.” One cannot escape the similarity with China here. Namely, Vučić did not state what that “another way” is, but it is highly likely that he was talking about 1000 Huawei surveillance cameras installed in undisclosed locations across Belgrade and equipped with sophisticated facial and licence plate recognition software. These cameras were set up as part of security partnership Serbia has with the Chinese government, and as part of technological partnership it has with Chinese tech heavyweight, the Huawei.

The list does not end there. In Serbia, at the beginning of April, the journalist Ana Lalić was arrested on charges of causing panic and unrest after reporting on the difficult conditions in the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina (Serbian province). Lalić was released but her laptop and mobile phone were kept by the police. In Montenegro, where one party has been in power for thirty years (75 years if one counts that the ruling party is a successor to the Yugoslav Communist Party), there has been an increase in arrest, intrusion of privacy, as well as suppression in the freedom of speech and media amidst pandemic. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 3000 Middle Eastern migrants are forcefully cramped up into tent camp surveyed by the police to impose social distancing.

All of this is happening at the time when Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch believes that “autocratic governments’ dangerous expansion of power may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies”. For David O. Shullman, a China specialist from the International Republican Institute, the extent crisis allows China to export authoritarianism worldwide, including in SEE countries like Serbia.

However, what really drew the countries of the region to invoke draconian, and in some cases authoritarian measures was not a grand plan of local power holders to adopt the Chinese authoritarian model, but reasons closer to home. The economically weak countries with weak healthcare systems were afraid that the uncontrollable pandemic would bring about the collapse of healthcare systems with major loss of life. Igor Rudan, the Professor of International Health and Molecular Medicine from the University of Edinburgh noted that if his home country Croatia did not introduce quarantine it would experience a potential lack of respirators. A prospect damning not just for COVID-19 infected but for other patients suffering from respiratory conditions.

The research done by Serbian political and data scientist Miloš Popović gives a good overview on the region’s healthcare vulnerability. Depending on the part of the Balkans the number of inhabitants per medical doctor ranges between 200 and 400 people. The number of the elderly citizens (aged 65 and above) who are most vulnerable in the pandemic per medical doctor in the region, ranges from the lowest category (31-40 people) to highest one of 100 people per medical doctor. The number of senior citizens (aged 60 and up) per available hospital bed in various regions goes to 20 to 34 people, all the way to over 120 people in some parts of Greece. According to the World Health Organization, some of the local countries have the lowest density rates of doctors in Europe with Albania having 1.2 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants, followed by Bosnia and Romania with 2 and 2.2 respectively. All of this in the region that, due to aging and migration, is experiencing a demographic decline where for instance Serbia’s median age is 43 above the EU’s average of 42.6.

The shortage of medical staff has been particularly troublesome given the massive immigration of local medical staff to the West in search of better opportunities. Germany alone in 2019 received over 50000 medical workers from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, which is 6500 more people compared to the previous year. Estimates from November 2018 states that in Serbia alone over 10000 doctors left the country to find jobs abroad in the past 20 years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the things are additionally complicated by the fact that 700 medical workers took a sick leave at the height of pandemics with scepticism whether they are really ill causing government probes.

Due to the pressure healthcare workers in Serbia face, Serbian President Vučić promised a 10 percent pay raise for all health care workers. Albanian Prime-Minister Edi Rama pledged additional 1000 Euro to the salaries of doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus. The countries throughout the region are calling for medical staff to come out of the retirement to fight the outbreak. Slovenia has suspended specialist studies for new doctors and is even appointing graduated doctors who still do not hold a licence when the need arises.

The countries of the region were also not blind to the fact that the richer Western countries made the mistake of waiting too long to respond to the outbreak with catastrophic consequences as in case of Italy. This created a nightmare scenario that local elites could not afford to happen in their countries. It is by no chance that the government and healthcare professionals in Serbia frequently invoked “the Italian scenario” as dark prospect that needs to be avoided in order to muster discipline of their citizenry in regards to government emergency measures. This radical approach might have also been driven by the fact that crisis-laden population is least afraid of the virus as the Gallup survey shows that over 70 percent of the region’s population believe that the virus is not a that big threat as it is presented.

The outbreak will pass at one point. However, the illiberal tilt of some of the countries in the region, like Hungary and Serbia will continue. This transformation, however, is not the product of Chinese actions nor the result of the desire to imitate China and its ruling Communist Party by the local politicians. It is the product of local circumstances and local elite who have been taking over their country’s political institutions and degrading the already fragile rule of law in the region. China will still score some points from this illiberal trend. Serbian leadership already showed the tendency to supress information critical of China so it could promote itself to its constituents as enablers of partnership with rising China. The Hungarian government decided to designate the contract on renewal of Budapest-Belgrade railway, a controversial project financed by Exim Bank of China for the next ten years. The illiberal capitals will also be more inclined to reach out to China as a way of hedging their bets and leveraging the West and the EU. Nevertheless, the Chinese model including its authoritarian political regime belongs to China, and China alone.

Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank. He writes widely on modern foreign and security policy issues, and is on Twitter @v_vuksanovic.