Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a joint press conference with Czech Republic's Prime Minister, Poland's Prime Minister and Slovakia's Prime Minister after a meeting of representatives of the Visegrad Group (V4), focusing on measures in response to the new coronavirus COVID-19, on March 4, 2020 in Prague. (Photo by Michal Cizek / AFP) (Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)
Democracy in danger as pandemic spreads
02:35 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @WorldAffairsPro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.

CNN  — 

In the span of just a few days, autocrats around the world, using the cover of the Covid-19 outbreak, have reached for shockingly devious powers to take on extraordinary new powers. We are not talking about logical containment steps, such as the ordering of social distancing, lockdowns or contact tracing.

Think power grabs along the lines of tightening internet access, expelling a foreign journalist for her reporting on coronavirus and taking down digital content under false pretenses.

Michael Bociurkiw

As former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said after the 2008 financial crisis: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. … It’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But there is a big difference between short-term, consensual restrictions of freedom and top-down authoritarian measures that have no expiration date – let alone a public health justification.

Hungary’s strongman gets even stronger

Nowhere is the grab for unchecked power more egregious than in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who once likened immigration to a “flu epidemic,” was already on the European Union’s troublemaker list after stacking the courts with loyalists and introducing legislation that criminalizes helping undocumented migrants with asylum claims.

Monday, the situation in Hungary deteriorated further, with loyal parliamentarians mustering a required two-thirds majority to allow Orban to rule by decree indefinitely and without any parliamentary oversight.

Though Orban has rejected accusations of wrongdoing, calling them “defamatory,” it is clear to most that Hungary’s gobsmacking measures warrant a strong response. The European Union needs to drop its standard finger-waving for raw pitchfork diplomacy. Its toolbox is not entirely empty: it includes taking action to suspend the country from voting on EU decisions and slapping Orban with weighty sanctions. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a tweet, even suggested invoking the nuclear option and expelling Hungary from the EU.

But Hungary is by no means the only country in Europe to be accused of overreach. Hardly a day goes by where the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), my former employer, doesn’t issue a statement of concern from actions it sees as unacceptable within its 57 member states. In recent days, the Austria-based organization has called out questionable Covid-19-related legislation and punitive actions in Romania, Armenia, Slovenia, Kosovo and Turkey.

Meanwhile in Russia

Outside the European Union, policies enacted during the Covid-19 outbreak in Russia have caught the OSCE’s attention, especially legislation last Tuesday that brings prison sentences of up to five years for spreading false information about the virus. While combating false information is a high priority for governments everywhere, the OSCE and other organizations say it’s written without guarantees for the right of the media to report on the pandemic unconstrained and could be used as a tool to suppress free speech.

Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at least once a year and share a well-known disdain for western liberal values as well as a negative view of Ukraine.

So, it should come as little surprise that the two strongmen borrow from the same playbook, especially when it comes to limiting the work of journalists and non-governmental organizations.

In times of crisis, the Kremlin tends to shift into overdrive to sow confusion and create division – even more so when the major powers are distracted, as they are now. Even after Covid-19 was declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization on January 30, a CNN investigation revealed that Russia was still heavily engaged in US election meddling using brilliantly disguised offshore troll farms.

And, in a worrying sign not seen since they landed on the ground in spring 2014, in eastern Ukraine OSCE monitors have been blocked by Russian-backed rebels for several days from crossing the front line on the pretext of Covid-19 “quarantines.”

Within Russia itself, Putin, amid a rapidly-worsening Covid-19 outbreak, had planned to hold a referendum April 22 to approve revisions to the entire Russian constitution, which among other things guarantees his hold on power until 2036. The exercise has been delayed, but should the pandemic drag on, it would certainly be in the style of the Russian ruler to send his citizens to the polls during a time where low voter turnout is almost guaranteed.

Lockdown protests

Because many areas of the world are under lockdown or some sort of movement restriction, organizing physical protests has become nearly impossible. But disgruntled citizens the world over have found creative ways – other than merely venting their anger on social media