The report focuses on 5 countries situated in Eurasia: China, Russia, Belarus, Iran, and Hungary, all of which are led by authoritarian leaders that possess robust state machinery for population control. On these 5 country cases, the report investigates whether there were any features in their response to the pandemic specific for autocratic regimes and what are the outcomes of their approaches.

The global pandemic caused by a coronavirus, widely known as COVID-19, officially broke out in the city of Wuhan in China in late 2019, but most probably it originated from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Wuhan-based Institute of Virology authorized to conduct the most sophisticated experiments with different viruses. It is also widely believed that the outbreak started three to four months before it was confirmed by the Chinese officials. No one actually knows when exactly it emerged and how many people had contracted the virus by the time the outbreak was reported to the WHO on New Year’s Eve. What we do know is that the Chinese authorities first pretended the infection was not too dangerous, but by the end of January started to take radical measures putting more than 50 million people in several provinces under quarantine.

Because of both, the delayed response and downgraded dangers of the virus, it easily spread outside China’s borders, causing a global disaster. As of June 1, 2020, five months after the emergence of the virus was officially recognized, it had spread to 212 countries and territories, infected more than 6 million people and killed around 375 thousand, with a quarter of all cases and casualties recorded in the United States. National responses to the pandemic have varied greatly with most governments and communities initially unprepared for the speed and scale of impacts of COVID-19.

In the pre-coronavirus world, many politicians and political thinkers expected democracies to be better suited to manage economic issues, ensure personal liberties, and promote growth and communal well-being; and anticipated that ‘strong’ autocratic societies would be better equipped for facing emergencies and dealing with unexpected challenges. To some extent, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed such expectations. According to the Freedom House World Index 2020, the  83 nations recognized as ”free” and amounting to roughly 37.6% of the global population, account for 76.9% of all people infected with COVID-19 and more than 84.9% dead as of May 10, 2020.11   

There is little doubt free nations are the most economically developed, have better health- care systems and more advanced social safety nets than the rest of the world. Moreover, it should be noted that the most developed countries have allocated enormous resources to stabilize their economies and have provided their people with basic needs during self-isolation and quarantine. The share of these nations in economic stimulus programs adopted worldwide exceeds 85%, while the economic downturn seems to be one of the severest.

However, there is a lot of doubt (to put it mildly) about the validity of statistical data provided by authoritarian and non-democratic governments related to the initial reports, the extent of progress achieved in fighting the pandemic, and their likelihood to accurately report new “hot spots” or “the second wave.” Secondly, it seems that almost any country can survive even a one-month-long economic pause without enormous fiscal and financial stimulus, but such a disruption would definitely have long- term consequences that in many aspects might be even more disastrous than huge budget deficits caused by the growth of the national debt.  The authoritarian states which bet on their citizens’ ability to muddle through the crisis without serious government help, could see them turn into “economically disabled” for years to come. Thirdly, it is hard to predict ways in which popular attitudes toward governments and political elites inside authoritarian states might change after the pandemic. Many of them have dialed up the repression against their citizens during the pandemic, a trend which in the long-term can become a destabilizing factor.

This report examines four Eurasian states who were among the “recipients” of COVID-19, rather than its source as well as China, where the virus emerged (because the spread of the coronavirus infection in both Africa and Latin America started significantly later, those regions are not included in our analysis).

Russia is one of the key cases in this study for several reasons. It was a late-comer to the “club” of affected nations but had caught-up very quickly. It has extensively used disinformation to depict its efforts in fighting COVID-19 as effective.  It has used the pandemic to legitimize further assault on democracy and freedoms of its citizens. Finally,  it has dedicated minimal resources to supporting its own economy and population during the COVID-19 crisis.

Iran, a theocratic Muslim state in the heart of the Gulf region, has borne disproportionate losses  due to its close ties with China and the dynamics of disease’s spread inside communities of faith.

Belarus, a relatively small post-Soviet state on the European Union’s eastern borders, is a unique case of a nation whose leadership has remained unwavering in its denial of the challenges posed by the virus. This policy has made Belarus one of the most affected countries in Europe with no clear outlook as to how and when the pandemic might recede there.

Hungary is included as  the only country inside the European Union approaching the description of an autocratic state, with a highly personality-driven system of governance and a growing trend of pervasive corruption and nepotism. It serves as an opportune case for examining specific features that a corrupt, though formally democratic, regime may adopt in its response to a pandemic.

This report was produced by a team of experts chaired by Dr Vladislav Inozemtsev, Founder and Director of the Center of Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow and Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who also wrote the chapter on Russia; Dr Clément Therme, former Director of the Iran Research Program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, currently serving as Research Associate at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and as Research Fellow with the Institut français des relations internationales in Paris who produced the chapter on Iran; Dr Arsen Sivitsky, Co-Founder and Director of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent Belarussian Minsk-based foreign policy think-tank who contributed to the study; and Bálint Madlovics, a Hungarian investigative journalist who has penned the chapter on Hungary. This study attempts to present a comprehensive description of efforts by the governments of the aforementioned countries to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that this analysis will contribute to a better understanding of these countries’ political regimes, as well as their economic and social perspectives.

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