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A nation must think before it acts.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting issues beyond public health. In Europe, for example, the crisis is testing the European Union’s collective mission with growing prevalence of national (and nationalistic) approaches to fighting the disease. In the United States, the mitigation efforts are caught in a politically polarized environment that may undermine its effectiveness. Yet, in the developing world, the political order itself is undergoing significant changes. Recent developments in Central Asia suggest that governments will use the anti-pandemic campaign to roll back democratic gains (however feeble) and further entrench authoritarianism. Particularly concerning is the use of the military-security apparatus to implement containment measures, which often trample individual rights and liberties and severely restrict civic engagement. Central Asian countries still have very low rates of infection by global comparison. In times when compassion and care are needed, the authorities in the region have resorted to cruelty and control. COVID-19 may be claiming democratization in Central Asia as another of its victims.
Consider few examples of the disproportionate nature of adopted measures:
In Kyrgyzstan, as a response to the pandemic, the government has declared a state of emergency. While understandable under current circumstances, the substance of actions taken as part of the measure diverge from strictly public health concerns and have negative ramifications for civil liberties. The declaration has allowed the authorities to exert virtually unrestrained power imposing, among others, binding nightly curfews. Unlike largely recommended lockdowns in other nations, the curfews in Kyrgyzstan are restrictive and enforced with powers to arrest any violators, resulting in hundreds being detained. Furthermore, reports are emerging that the decree has been used to curb media activity and other forms of civic engagement.
In neighboring Kazakhstan, the government stationed the military on the streets to enforce similar measures. Troops have erected checkpoints, cut-off traffic, and cordoned off neighborhoods and entire cities, all of which severely restrict the movement of citizens. To further the strain, another decree bars the bodies of deceased to be returned to relatives and next of kin.
Yet, the most bizarre campaign of all may be unfolding in Turkmenistan. There, government’s response to the pandemic centers around banning the use of the word “coronavirus,” punishable by arrest. In addition, the use of facemasks, a ubiquitous sign of anti-pandemic efforts around the world, has also been banned. The effectiveness of these puzzling measures is certainly of doubtful rationale. What is not questionable, however, is the ability and desire of the regime to arbitrarily reinforce its power over the already strained population. Ultimately, it is evocative of reflexive authoritarianism that denies the existence of a problem by eliminating signs of it, without addressing the root causes.
To be fair, restrictive measures designed to prevent and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus are being put in place around the world. The United States and some European nations have instituted lockdowns in order to implement social distancing. The key difference between these measures and the ones mentioned above, however, is the nature, implementation, and institutional setting in which these measures are carried out. In the West, efforts at quarantining populations have a recommending-advisory nature with no punishable outcome in the form of arrests and detentions. In terms of implementation, too, the lockdowns are not reliant on the use of military or security forces. That is, we do not see the Department of Defense in the United States spearheading anti-pandemic efforts with troops deployed across cities (with weapons) to police the lockdown among civilians. In fact, much of the “enforcement” comes from individual self-isolation.
This is in stark contrast to Central Asia, where to fight what is essentially a humanitarian public health issue, authorities have applied a security-military mindset (standard operating procedure for many non-democracies). Incidentally, across the region, National Security Councils—bodies customarily comprised of the security apparatus and no representatives from the medical field—adopt the chosen anti-pandemic measures. As a result, the efforts appear less about alleviating the health crisis and more about signaling state authority and its ability to enforce restrictions. Particularly troubling, as has been noted, are the compulsory military-security restrictions on citizens’ movement. The use of military for policing purposes is an unwelcome sight in any society. In transitional nations, however, with no robust institutional counterchecks, the practice is particularly halting. It leads to normalization of forceful tactics and the overall securitization of society. These measures are not good enablers of political liberalization in the long run. Consequently, the tactics adopted have raised more questions than provide assurance, particularly about the future of democratization in the region. It is predicted that the novel coronavirus will change many norms for many societies. Developments in Central Asia indicate that for these societies the likely outcome will be the curtailment of liberties and the entrenchment of authoritarianism.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.