Covid-19 in Eastern Europe: Austerity, Authoritarianism and Religious Fundamentalism

The collective panic of the fear-stricken citizens of the West is accompanied by a particularly irritating hype over how the world will not be the same after Covid-19 is eradicated. For those of us living in Eastern Europe, this is yet another nail in the coffin rather than anything else.

Here, east of Elbe and south of the Baltic Sea, there are no romantic visions of a major change; the usual hopelessness and demoralization, with extremely few exceptions, prevails. And anxiety is nothing new for us either. We have been living with the nightmare for the last three decades people in the West are discovering now.

In Eastern Europe: business as usual, only worse

And we shall most likely stick to the disastrous policies of the capitalist-restorationist, neoliberal status quo. It is the idée fixe of the political class of the entire regionagain, with only a few exceptions. The general civilizational setback and utter plight of tens of millions of people have not convinced them to change course; no virus will. This seems to be the only real principle to cling to the course once set up with teeth and claws, no matter what.

This is particularly true for Bulgaria and Romania, but also Poland. Let us begin with the fact that these countries are at the very bottom of any healthcare ranking in the EU.

Source: Euro Health Consumer Index 2018, own modification 

Note: The Euro Health Consumer Index (EHCI) 2018 analyses national healthcare on 46 indicators grouped in areas such as Patient Rights and Information, Accessibility, Treatment Outcomes, Range and Reach of Services, Prevention and use of Pharmaceuticals; the minimum score is 333, the maximum 1000;

Both countries, Romania and Bulgaria, have the lowest life expectancy and highest mortality rates for preventable illnesses and chronic conditions, as well as all kinds of risk factors: from unhealthy eating to excessive smoking. The proportion is the same for pretty much any quality-of-life indicators. On top of that, there is an immense shortage of physicians, nurses and other medical personnel. It is not surprising given their humiliating pay and harsh working conditions. Let’s face it healthcare systems in Bulgaria and Romania do not have the capacity to meet emergencies, and function properly at even a ‘normal’ time. The current pandemic is another reminder of this.

Looking at the current circumstances one should, however, take into consideration that the healthcare systems’ current status is not really a question of mismanagement and lack of proper financing. It is also a direct victim of the transparent, obviously anti-social and inhumane ideological paradigm which has been the dominant doctrinal mode of governance around the world and in our region in particular for decades. Bulgaria, Romania and Poland are among the most obedient followers.

Neoliberal legacy in Eastern Europe

Killing social programmes for the sake of a balanced budget began as an ideology with Reagan’s and Thatcher’s market-fundamentalist experiments. In the 1990s it took the form of brutal reforms across Eastern Europe and the Global South, with the support of the IMF and the World Bank. And in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, it returned with a new impetus to the West in the form of even more ruthless austerity. Healthcare has ceased to be considered a right and has increasingly become a luxury commodity that people are supposed to buy. Hospitals, outpatient clinics, and other such establishments have become commercial companies, investing and training specialists only for medical procedures that are profitable.

Now the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a complete systemic crisis, one that does not bypass even countries like Germany, which has not completely sacrificed its healthcare.

The paradigm that subordinated human life to the changing moods of speculative capital markets suddenly proved utterly incapable of saving the economy itself from total collapse. In fact, we are currently watching the economy, which was already embarking on a recession, become a victim to precisely those long-standing policies that were imposed in the name of its rule.

All of a sudden, this whole framework completely collapses under the pressure of an emergency, which, objectively speaking, is neither unexpected, nor the worst possible scenario for a global health crisis. The neoliberal economic and political model is incapable of adapting or proposing solutions simply because the logic behind it is nonsense. Empty toilet paper stands have become a grotesque symbol of where the so-called invisible hand of the market gets you once you let it lead.

The simple stay-at-home assignment may seem like an easy, albeit annoying, task for the upper middle class, but it represents an unattainable luxury and an increasingly nightmarish scenario the further down the social ladder you are. For the reality in which many live, the home office sounds like a mockery, and "virtual learning" for children as a "mission impossible", despite the heroism of teachers and parents.

In these circumstances, it turned out it is not impossible to take urgent and uncompromising measures to guarantee our survival. It is not inconceivable that the state should use its instruments of intervention, that are contrary to market dogmas, for the benefit of the common good. It is not utopian or incompetent anymore to mobilize financial and public resources to guarantee income, employment, shelter and access to public services for the entire population. Probably the most concentrated example of this dramatic redefinition of the "possible" is how the London authorities have found how easy it is to solve homelessness – by accommodating those in need of shelter in hotels.

With the steps taken in many advanced capitalist countries where the elite was ready to renounce their economic and political orthodoxy in panic, one might think that satellite states like Bulgaria or Romania would follow this example without much thought. Well, no!

The authorities in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as Poland, simply fail to navigate a world in which all the prescriptions for "stability" are suddenly blank and where a balanced budget, GDP growth plus low taxes have no meaning and cannot be used to enchant the masses. They cannot even be used to praise “the western model” nor to rationalize the authorities’ destructive behavior as adequate and responsible management.

In Eastern Europe we now have a situation of self-inflicted misery in the face of yet another global crisis with the same inadequate and egotistical political elite “leading” us.

Grotesque political failures every step of the way

In his absurd and unhinged television tirades, Boyko Borisov, the right-wing PM of Bulgaria (GERB party, EPP group in the EP), is constantly pushing the old mantra (in an increasingly preposterous manner), revolving around myths of budget deficits and debt, clearly unable to grasp that they are not an argument for anything at the moment, probably will not be ever again. Even when the government did manage to simulate a sort of economic aid package, the arguments behind how good it was were that the budget deficit did not exceed the legendary Maastricht criteria.

So what? The measures adopted by the government are so insufficient that they will soon turn out to be virtually meaningless. This is why the Bulgarian PM tells people it is now time to resort to their savings, referring to "huge billions" of bank deposits. A closer look at the statistics, however, shows that the overall increase comes mainly from an increase in large deposits. The poor have no savings.

We can predict with great confidence that after the health crisis is over, the government’s main priority will be again to cut the budget for the already underfunded public sector. And from TV and the rest of the obedient media, we will be told that the whole world is praising us for being the last Mohican of austerity. There have even been rumours that the government is contemplating yet another IMF program. Such a loan would certainly go with a whole package of disastrous and devastating conditions. But this is what our rulers ultimately want – a list of instructions and a ready-made excuse.

Our elected officials are truly convinced that for their political future, it is best not to take the most necessary and logical action.

The economic disaster that will surface in full force within weeks, when people run out of the last cents shaken out of the pockets of pants and jackets, is only one part of the overall picture. The second is the vast boost to authoritarian tendencies and desires the powers that be have received.

Since the onset of the state of emergency in Bulgaria, we can observe a further shift towards authoritarianism. This peculiar transition is impersonated by a really weird fellow, the one Ventsislav Mutafchiyski, a military physician who shortly after being parachuted into the very center of the public sphere, stopped calling himself a professor and demanded to be referred to as a general (which he is) who demonstrates a truly suspicious enthusiasm for showing off his collection of uniforms is certainly not a good sign.

After the outbreak of the Covid–19 pandemic in the country, Mutafchiyski was appointed Chairman of the National Crisis Management staff and started holding daily briefings where he reads out statistical updates and takes questions from reporters. On occasion Mutafchiyski has issued contradictory messages. On 10 April, he claimed "there were bunches of seven, eight people on the streets" and has linked this to a supposed spike in infections the following week. Conversely, Mutafchiyski admitted he watched the Easter services "with pleasure," claiming that social distancing measures and low attendance were sufficient to prevent churches from becoming a source of contagion, despite reports that the number of people attending the Alexander Nevsky liturgy alone was in the hundreds.

The church steps in the states applaud

Interestingly enough, the pandemic revealed that such authoritarian tendencies are accompanied by a new wave of Christian fundamentalism.

The striking images from Romania where priests were giving communion with a shared spoon as Covid-19 cases were rapidly growing. The footage of that from Cluj appeared literally one day after new tougher measures were imposed to try to halt the spread of coronavirus. While the Romanian Orthodox Church had announced “exceptional measures” back in February, with worshipers able to ask priests to use their own spoon to receive communion, it wasn’t a requirement. A day after the footage appeared online, Romanian church authorities announced a list of new measures, including that services would now go ahead but without the participation of the public, who could watch proceedings online and on television.

At the same time, the course taken by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was in sharp contrast to all these limitations and restrictions imposed by the government in Sofia.

On 10 March, the Metropolitan bishop of Lovech by the name of Gavril announced that Easter services in Bulgaria would be held as usual, because unlike other types of congregations, church services and liturgies are sacraments. This statement seemed to be sufficient reason for the Metropolitan bishop to claim that one cannot catch the coronavirus during mass:“Contamination has never been transmitted or perpetuated in churches where sacraments are performed! There have never been epidemics in the church. They lose their power here,” said the bishop, adding that questioning his argument is a weakness of faith. And faith is most important if you don’t want to get infected.

There is no danger – in my opinion – in the specific act of everybody receiving the Eucharist with the same spoon. That’s what the history of the Church has demonstrated. People have been taking the Eucharist throughout the worst epidemic crises, and no contamination or infection has ever taken place. Therefore, there is no need for fear when we go to worship. Infections will never be transmitted there. Well, if someone’s faith is weak – that’s a different story,” Gavril went on to explain.

Such statements enjoy the support of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which is why not only the Easter services but also the regular services carry on as usual – with commoners kissing icons and taking Holy Communion from the same spoon without any disinfection. Even though security measures due to the pandemic situation are tightening almost daily, the Church seems to be excluded from the general regimen. And the misbehavior of the Bulgarian Holy Synod is only a symptom. The central problem here is that Bulgarian public institutions are allowing this to happen. Borisov even boasted about how his government is “the only one in the world which had not closed down the churches”. This is not true, but the Bulgarian PM lying rate is close to the one of Trump.

In Romania, on 14 April, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Marcel Vela, announced in a press conference that a protocol had been signed between the Ministry of Interior and the Orthodox Patriarchy (the ruling institution of the Romanian Orthodox Church). The protocol allowed police officers to offer Holy Communion as unbelievable as this may seem. Each year on Easter Day, Romanians gather in large numbers in Churches to get these pieces of bread they consider holy the body of Christ and they also light candles in the church and then try to be as careful as they can not to extinguish them since it is very important to them to get home with those candles still alight. Now, the problem was that because of the lockdown, nobody was allowed to leave their homes so they considered themselves deprived of this “spiritual food”. The solution of our Ministry of Interior was to sign this protocol that would make police officers deliver this Holy Communion! The next day, on 15 April, president Klaus Johannis called a meeting and the protocol was changed. Police officers were no longer bound to deliver the “spiritual food”. The protocol was also criticised by the police officers’ union leaders that said that if this goes on, they would consider becoming monks.

In the country run by a Catholic-fundamentalist party, Poland, the church seems to be more responsive to various limitations, although it can still enjoy its exemption status. The possible closure of churches and cancelling Sunday Holy Masses in the wake of the spreading epidemic was the most discussed topic of the past few weeks. The Polish Episcopate has decided not to cancel ceremonies, and in fact the government appealed to the Church to organise more of them, in order to decrease the number of people participating in each. The decision has sparked controversy, especially in the wake of the closure of all nurseries, kindergartens, schools, universities, museums, theatres, concert halls and cinemas for over a month now.

That immediately ignited the most radical wing of the Polish Catholic church and its political representation. In a letter to parishioners, Archbishop Andrzej Dzięga wrote:

Satan is powerless in the face of this clear and unambiguous human testimony of faith […] There is a reason why it is said that somebody is afraid like the devil of holy water [..] Do not be afraid to reach with faith for the holy water […] Do not be afraid of the church.

Paving the way for authoritarianism

The dictatorial acrobatics put in place by Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling party who pulls all the strings in the executive branch despite having no official position, are a complete aberration, they are unconstitutional and risk years of legal chaos when this party is finally removed from power. No official state of emergency was declared in order for the Law and Justice party (PiS) to go ahead with presidential elections in the beginning of May. The government decided to strip people of most civil liberties and freedoms by massively amending tons of bills with no parliamentary discussion and acting absolutely and totally against the constitution.

The Polish legal expert Monika Płatek and Warsaw University professor with social democratic views expressed it best in an interview for the Polish left-wing portal where she claimed that “the government is treating us like prisoners”:

The law on emergency states provided for in Chapter 11 of the Constitution, specifically in Article 228, had to be applied. In addition to the state of emergency and martial law, the government has the right to declare a state of natural disaster. This condition corresponds exactly to the current reality. It is foreseen for the state of plague. The state of natural disaster is introduced to prevent the effects of natural disasters, and this is what we are dealing with, the Council of Ministers introduces the state of natural disaster for a limited period of time, not longer than 30 days. This period may be extended, if necessary, with the consent of the Sejm [Polish parliament]. Article 233 clearly states what cannot be done during such a state. Article 228, paragraph 7 of the Constitution clearly states that no elections are organized during a plague.

While everyone is busy wearing masks, the authoritarianism virus takes its toll. It is fully justified to suspect that, in the long term, this development may be more dangerous than any new disease. Many, however, express such concerns that the health crisis is overstated, hyperbolized, or even counterfeited, to justify further deprivation of liberty and the emptying of democratic institutions. But in the end, history provides enough examples that show elites are fully capable of taking advantage of a very real crisis to unleash their anti-democratic instincts.

Anti-democratic tensions do not make the epidemic any less real, or vice versa. We have all the reasons to worry about the political and economic implications that this pandemic will have on the world. We cannot afford the optimistic thinking that we are faced with only one real problem and the rest are a smokescreen or can be ignored. For our own good, we will need to realize that the pandemic, the economic crisis and rampant authoritarianism are just three of our most pressing and inevitably real problems.

Crises tend to accelerate history, and the past few months have definitely felt like an over-concentrated experience of events, emotions, and changes that usually take years. Whether all the talk of change today will prove justified in the long run is an open question. So far, it looks like Eastern Europe might become a conglomerate of pathological authoritarianism and Christian fundamentalism to be used as management leverages for even more severe austerity and impoverishment.