Trust, Not Repression is Safest Path for Any Government to Survive COVID | Opinion

As the global pandemic enters its ninth month, people are frustrated and desperate. With families unable to cope with food shortages and falling incomes, nations world over are experiencing mass unrest. Cooped up and locked out, activists have sparked demonstrations against societal injustices, while others have joined the crusades of modern luddites, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and anti-vaxxers. It may get worse before it gets better.

There is widespread anger in the U.S. The Black Lives Matter movement have led the largest protests in the U.S. since the 1968 "summer of discontent", joined by the anarchist Antifa fringe group. The labor and leisure of normal times are no longer available. Hyper-connected online communities have awakened to national strife, amplified by simmering discontent with dead-end jobs and student loans.

Europe is no exception: recently Alternative for Germany and Generation Identity extremists attacked the Reichstag, and miscellaneous far right protesters demonstrated in London. But it gets worse in the developing world.

In Brazil, populist president Jair Bolsonaro joined anti-lockdown rioters in the capital Brasilia, despite the rising death rates there. Iraqi health workers angered by equipment shortages have joined protesters in Baghdad's streets. Even in mountainous Katmandu, young people recently cornered Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli but were met by riot police.

Any government reluctant to take the blame for an ineffective pandemic response has clear incentive to blame political opposition – and vice versa. In Belarus, citizens frustrated by the six-term president Alexander Lukashenko's COVID-skepticism, heavy-handed authoritarianism and incompetence, came out in the streets after the ruler blatantly falsified his own re-election. Paradoxically, an unprecedented mobilization against his oppressive regime may eventually result in an even heavier Russian hegemony.

The day before the Lukashenko victory announcement, roads in Minsk were blocked by armed police exacerbated by widespread internet outages. Protestors were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikahnovskaya was held in custody for seven hours by Lukashenko's secret police. Then, the government released a video of Tikhanovskaya detained, asking her supporters to accept the election results and to stand down.

Journalists and supporters described the broadcast as clear coercion, with the opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova noting "a person alone for three hours with two law enforcement officers can end up reading out any text." Kolesnikova later resisted deportation to Ukraine and is under arrest, together with most of the opposition's coordinating committee.

Lukashenko's inability to handle civic strife starkly plays exactly to the script of an entrenched dictator in denial. But this isn't the only way for the powers-that-be to cope with popular discontent. Consider, for instance, how Kazakhstan's diffused election-driven protests last year and handled of the pandemic. The wildly different government responses lead to vastly distinct outcomes.

In 2019 house fire in Astana sparked anger over corruption and poor resource allocation in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev responded by dismissing the government and resigning after 30 years in power, with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev succeeding him. In June, Tokayev called a snap presidential election, where he purportedly received 70 percent of the vote. Protests erupted immediately, with thousands arrested or detained.

Kazakhstan was hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 20 percent of the population losing income due to falling oil prices and lockdowns. Tokayev proactively relaxed protest laws so as to not repeat the post-election riots. Demonstrations continued, with the opposition movement calling for Tokayev's resignation, and for Nazarbayev, who had retained influence in government, to be removed from power. Yet Kazakhstan had diffused the tension, promising opposition in the Parliament and proclaiming "a state that listens" to people's concerns.

If ruling elites expect to maintain order, they need to be forward-thinking in their responses to COVID-stricken economies. Providing public safety nets and demonstrating a commitment to evidence-based health policy will assuage a panicked citizenry. Brutal suppression of public discontent, such as what is happening in Belarus, will not remove the underlying causes of high political engagement and unrest.

Kazakhstan chose an opposite path. On September 1, Tokayev made a State of the Nation address to Parliament, recognizing the government's mismanagement of the crisis and emphasizing national unity:

The pandemic has become a stress test for all states. The government has learned from its mistakes, and managed to reorganize, literally on the run.

The main thing is that we did not hide anything from our citizens, we speak openly about our losses. We tell the truth no matter how bitter these losses may be. This distinguishes Kazakhstan from some other states.

He went on to outline evidence-based government reforms and policies aimed to bolster economic and social recovery, promising more openness and market-driven economic solutions.

Three Futures

And herein lies the rub: mismanagement of the pandemic has provided ammunition to politicians and activists eager for changes to the status quo. A government willing to hear public grievances and respond competently with evidence-driven strategy can minimize anti-government mobilization and shorten the return to relative normalcy.

As Francis Fukuyama wrote in Foreign Affairs, it is not even a matter of regime type.

Some democracies have performed well, but others have not, and the same is true for autocracies. The factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust, and leadership. Countries with all three—a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to, and effective leaders—have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered. Countries with dysfunctional states, polarized societies, or poor leadership have done badly, leaving their citizens and economies exposed and vulnerable.

Three potential scenarios emerge from the unrest triggered by the pandemic: a baseline, a positive, and a negative one. In the baseline, protestors are dispersed without lethal force. The status quo is largely maintained by short-term concessions depriving the protest movements of momentum.

The reformist scenario would peacefully engender opposition to ineffectual policies, resulting in a more competent leadership by a responsive, popular, and solution-oriented government. With minimal damage to public infrastructure or international standing, a country can come out of a crisis preventing the loss of life and achieving greater democratization.

A negative outcome entails a draconian state response intended to disrupt popular protest without addressing grievances -- or yielding power. Either a police crackdown will preserve the oppression, or there may be a successful toppling of government resulting in anarchy. Worse, the country may be subjugated by an adjacent but equally dictatorial ruler.

Sustained unrest will frighten away investors and send refugees fleeing for safer harbors, or the nation may violently dissolve along regional, ethnic, or religious lines. Governments which deny or ignore the virus, apply lockdowns oppressively and incoherently, or fail to shield their people and sabotage long-term economic prospects, may pay a heavy price at home and abroad.

History will judge them harshly.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis Ltd. Hayley Arlin, an intern at ITIC, contributed to research for this article.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.