How authoritarian regimes respond to crises

Mass-arrests by riot police is not an option for containing the Coronavirus in Belarus

The question of how authoritarian regimes respond to crises is well studied in world political science. In general, existing studies indicate two aspects of the impact of crises on authoritarian regimes.

On the one hand, such regimes use the occurrence of a crisis to consolidate the population around them, further restrict civil and political freedoms, suppress their opponents and strengthen their power. Many authoritarian regimes (including the Belarusian one) arose and strengthened largely thanks to crises.

On the other hand, the responses that an authoritarian regime undertakes are typical, regardless of the country, and most often demonstrate the greatest effectiveness at the formation stage. In the period of maturity of an authoritarian regime, crises can turn into a “black swan” event, especially if the usual response mechanisms have not led to the desired results.

In modern political science, special attention is focused on the measures taken by China in response to non-standard threats.So, using the example of the Sichan earthquake in 2008, D. Stockmann and P. Landry showed that although the population rallied around the government at the first stage, the cumulative effect of the consequences of the earthquake as well as unfulfilled expectations from the government led to criticism in relation to the authorities led to a weakening of their legitimacy [1]. All this took place on the background of significant information openness (or imitation of openness) of the Chinese authorities and their active cooperation with NGOs.

Summarizing the various cases, we can note the following consequences of emergency situations for authoritarian regimes:

·   a blow to the social contract between the state and citizens;

·   increasing risk of social conflicts;

·   discordant actions of the bureaucracy.

It is considered that a special blow to the legitimacy is caused by the fact of victims among the population,which is why the government is accused of either acting or doing nothing.

The attention of researchers to various forms of responses to crises of China is understandable. It is surprising that despite a long period of development of “analytics” and “expertise” of Belarus’ domestic policy, the Belarusian expert community has not yet developed a full-fledged study that would systematize the reactions of the Belarusian authorities to crises. As a result, this article is not based on a basic coordinate system but is a situational description of the actions of the authorities in response to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the Republic of Belarus. The author of this article is not an infectious disease doctor, so the work will not give any assessment of the actions of medical professionals.

Different states, faced with the outbreak of the coronavirus, have developed different strategies of fighting the disease. One of the most common forms was the introduction of a more or less strict quarantine, the effectiveness of which is evaluated differently in various publications, but quarantine has not been recognized as ineffective in any work known to the author. Rather, we are talking about the ratio of cost and benefits. This method of assessment is widely used in political science and public administration. One of its disadvantages is the different understanding of costs and benefits by different actors. In the context of the coronavirus pandemicthis ratio can be reformulated as the ratio between the values of life of the most vulnerable persons to infection (mainly those over 70 years of age) and the cost of quarantine measures in monetary terms.

Of course, in addition to strict quarantine, we can refer to the experience of South Korea where the emphasis was placed on the use of the latest technologies for detecting diseases, absolute openness and transparency of taken measures and active cooperation between citizens and authorities. There can be a long discussion about how much the Belarusian authorities are ready to actively cooperate with their own citizens, including NGOs, and to what extent they accept openness and transparency, but one thing can be said with intuitive accuracy: neither technologically nor financially Belarus – from the point of view of the Belarusian authorities – is able to afford those measures that have demonstrated some effectiveness in countering the spread of coronavirus in other countries.

Regardless of all the arguments about sovereignty, independence, protecting the EU’s borders from various types of threats, etc., the current situation has clearly shown who is more interested in the open Belarusian-Russian border – Minsk or Moscow.

Unfortunately, there is no relevant data on economic losses as a result of counteracting the spread of coronavirus, but it is obvious that we are talking about tens of billions of dollars. It is obvious that Belarus does not have such funds [2]. In these circumstances choosing between the risk of deaths among vulnerable groups (especially in the context of an aging population and all the problems with the healthcare system) and financial and economic risks, the Belarusian authorities predictably opted for the former.

It is obvious to an outside observer that the Belarusian authorities were not ready for the arrival of the coronavirus. More precisely, only the healthcare system – which partially preserved the Soviet legacy in the form of the Semashko system – was more or less ready because it was mainly focused on fighting epidemics.

We briefly list just a few signs that the Belarusian authorities did not have any clear and intelligible strategy to counteract the coronavirus:

1.  lack of consistency regarding the introduction of quarantine or other restrictive measures in institutions of higher and secondary education (including the confusedpostponement and immediate cancellation of the start of spring break in schools) and other places of mass concentration of people;

2.  unclear and inconsistent information policy, ranging from contradictory statements by the head of state to increasingly vague statements and press releases by the Ministry of Health;

3.  lack of readiness to close the borders of neighbors and most EU countries;

4.  unpreparedness for increased demand for a number of medical devices. A good example is the order given by President Lukashenko on March 19 to set up production of respirators in Belarus within a week.

Obviously, the lack of readiness of the authorities cannot be explained by a lack of information and relevant forecasts. The following assumptions can be made about what the Belarusian authorities were guided by without taking adequate preparatory measures for the arrival of coronavirus in the country:

1.  the confidence of the country’s leadership that its inaction will not lead to significant protests. It seems that this confidence is based on the experience of 2011, when even a three-fold devaluation of the Belarusian ruble did not lead to significant political upheavals, as well as on the fact that the Belarusian model even in its current form has too many beneficiaries (or who consider themselves to be beneficiaries);

2.  confidence in the controllability of the information space. New media are popular mainly among young people who are, in general, less loyal to the authorities than older people;

3.  confidence in the ability to correct public opinion about the real scale and consequences of the spread of coronavirus infection in the country;

4.  confidence in the effectiveness of the repressive apparatus [3]. For example, on March 21, it turned out that the KGB should deal with telegram channels that spread news about the coronavirus. The question of why people believe telegram channels more than the Ministry of health and the richly paid ideological vertical has traditionally remained open;

5.  confidence in the control of the internal political situation;

6.  confidence in getting help and support from Russia.

The Belarusian authorities have robust and proven, from their point of view, mechanisms for retaining control. Even if there is no strategic vision of any changes and minimal preparation for the fight against the disease even in the conditions of the approaching pandemic, there is no reason to think that President Lukashenko is ready for some strategic reforms, experiments in conducting an election campaign, building a party system, abandoning Russian resource support, etc. Manual situational management continues to dominate the system of state administration in Belarus.

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[1] Crisis Management in an Authoritarian Regime: Media Effects During the Sichuan Earthquaketps://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1463796.

[2] Moreover, if possible, the Belarusian authorities were not averse to earning extra money. It is still difficult to assess who is the beneficiary of the sharp increase in prices for a number of goods in demand during the epidemic, but it is known exactly how much the “help” to evacuate Belarusians from Moscow cost:about USD130, almost twice the usual price for a flight (https://naviny.by/article/20200320/1584718465-belorusy-vo-vnukovo-bez-vody-i-edy-v-tualet-pod-konvoem).

[3] It is quite predictable that the additional burden of helping the elderly was placed on social workers, and the Ministry of internal Affairs only paid lip service to this.