Who Needs Society? Authoritarianism and COVID-19

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that ‘western democracies’ should look to Eastern Europe to how it contained the COVID-19 pandemic. With some Eastern European countries first ignoring or diminishing the COVID-19 threat (Russia) or asserting the benefits of ‘alternative’ therapies such as the encouragement of steam baths, eating garlic, and drinking Vodka – the Eastern European approach needs to be understood with more nuance. Of course a key assertion here is not that these ‘alternative’ approaches have merit, but more that is that people in Eastern Europe, because of the legacies of their communist past, are much more accepting of restriction on their individual freedoms. At the core of this assertion is the nature of state-society relations.

State-society relations are a core part of governance arrangements in all sort of political regimes. In western democracies, be they of a liberal-capitalist or social-democratic persuasion, they tend to be open and transparent involving the ability for frequent interaction and open critique. This enables individuals, groups and organisations, often in the form of non-profit organisations to engage in a range of activities to ensure the accountability of government.

In non-democratic regimes, state-society relations tend to be used to reinforce the status quo, rather than challenge it. The current pandemic has thus provided an opportunity for authoritarian regimes to further shape state-society relations to ensure their continued existence.

The academic literature highlights that authoritarian regimes ensure their resilience and survival by adapting their governance arrangements. COVID-19 has already been a godsend for them in terms of their ability to curb individual freedoms (such as freedom of movement or assembly) and a way to justifiably increasing ‘big brother’ tendencies and to further centralise power. Likely they will find it difficult to walk these back when the pandemic is over. Conversely, such regimes may now be more reliant on non-profit organisations to ‘manage’ the response to the pandemic – both in terms of protecting the vulnerable, but also identifying who the vulnerable are in the first place.

A good example is the Russian Federation. Over the years it has used political, legislative, financial and cultural means to limit the ability and reach of NPOs (albeit keeping a few organisations going to maintain a veneer of democracy). At the same time, the state has worked directly with some non-profit organisations to help address key social problems. These have become an important part in maintaining social order, particularly at a local and regional level. In the event of this health crisis, it is likley that state is now reliant on such NPOs to access ‘hard to reach’ vulnerable groups including drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse. Might NPOs be able to take advantage of this opportunity to reshape their relationship with the state? Will the Russian states new abilities to surveille the individual mean that there is less of a need to control what NPOs do? But also maybe less of a need to engage with them? One thing is for sure, state-society relations in Russia and elsewhere are unlikely to be the same again.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow is a lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield Management School and an expert scholar in Russian civil society development.


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