Can Europe Make It?

Is totalitarianism on the rise in the East?

We should distinguish between Orban’s rightfully penalized measures of ruling by decree and less stringent regulations meant to curb the unruliness of a class which has placed itself above the law.

Lucian Tion
25 May 2020
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on March 10, 2020.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on March 10, 2020.
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Attila Volgyi/PA. All right reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, in full COVID crisis, I walked to the corner store to do some minor shopping. Some senior citizens, lined up according to the latest rules dictated by the pandemic, were standing in line a few feet apart from one another, waiting their turn to make their purchases at the cash register. As I took my place at the end of the line, which now protruded quite deep into the shop proper, an individual wearing a loose training suit brushed past the last few people at the back of the queue, and positioned himself just behind the person who was paying at that moment.

I gave a loud call and drew the attention of the individual to the fact that the line was actually back where I was standing. At that moment, the incensed shopper, a flash of anger in his eyes, darted in my direction: “Who do you think you are to tell me where I should stand?” he hollered, making a few eyes in the store turn in our direction. In vain did I try to make him see that the law, notwithstanding the rules of common sense, decreed that he take his place in line behind me, and a few feet apart from me, at that. The individual, ready to start a fight in defense of his God-given right to pay for his merchandise wherever and whenever he saw fit, wouldn’t relent, and continued arguing until, of his own accord, he decided to furiously leave the shop while uttering a vague threat in my direction.

I wouldn’t have shared this story if this or other similar transgressions didn’t describe the generalized response of the population to the rules taken by the Romanian government to stem the spread of the COVID virus. Moreover, I wouldn’t have used this event as an illustration, if the state of insubordination and affront on the rule of law depicted above, didn’t describe the general social atmosphere at the time of pandemic in Romania.

A lot of ink has been spilled recently decrying the fast rise of authoritarianism in the East. Journalists and representatives of grassroots organizations have rushed to flag up alarm signals in the press, warning the West that the situation in Eastern Europe and Russia, not to mention authoritarian China, was quickly getting out of control. They further caution that dictators from Orban to Putin and Xi Jing Pin, taking advantage of the COVID moment, are insidiously attempting to draw their countries back into the throes of totalitarianism.[1] In this context, the Romanian government has equally been criticized for using the hefty fines issued on its citizens during the pandemic to enrich itself.[2]

I am not defending the rights of the above-named rulers, or those of anyone in a position of authority – of eastern or western extract – to abuse the powers of the state. However, what needs to be specified in this case is that the otherwise well-intentioned journalists who launched these alarm signals, didn’t take into account the generalized corruption engendered by the rule of the rich that seems to characterize the countries they have decided to put into the limelight.

In Romania, for example, a peculiar understanding of democracy, filtered through the lens of private interest and fierce pursuit of economic profit, turned society into a hotbed of lawlessness, disrespect for fellow citizens, and disregard for the most basic of human values. Since the fall of communism in eastern Europe and Russia in the late eighties and early nineties, the wave of bourgeoisification, personal enrichment at the hand of the state, and the enthronement of private property as the most sacrosanct of all democratic values has led to the creation of a nouveau riche class. Replacing the generalized poverty that countries like Romania experienced as a result of insufficient economic development under state communism, this class, dictating the new living standards for a society and smitten with western opulence, bewitched by rags-to-riches success stories, made a joke of the foundational values of democracy, while crying foul at every attempt of the government to curb its unbridled power.

The opening anecdote serves little, in this context, when trying to describe the much more serious deviances that are usually ignored when decrying the loss of democracy in the East. We should include in this category the criminal cutting down of forests and disregard for environmental norms that describe the sorry state of eastern economies, particularly in lands still rich in natural resources, like that of Romania. It is blatant disregard for the law that should equally be blamed for the dramatic increase in road accidents caused by a complete lack of observance of speed regulations, which puts Romania at the top of European Union polls in terms of unsatisfactory road safety conditions.[3]

For these reasons, the word “democracy” doesn’t have the same ring in western as in eastern Europe, and this is not only because of economic disparity. It is because the new ruling class picked and chose whichever “democratic” values it saw fit from the pile thrown at its feet in the early nineties, with devastating consequences for eastern societies. After a disastrous privatization process of state-owned industries, which enriched only a powerful few, democracies in eastern Europe developed following an economic and societal pattern more akin to tribalism than liberal values. This led not only to a concentration of power into the hands of oligarchs, as the Russian example also showed, but to an uber-liberal lifestyle dictated by the rich, which the large majority of the poorer middle class have desperately tried to emulate. As a result, this middle class, subjugated by delusions of grandeur, consider it natural to live and act in ways that mirror the increasingly totalitarian rule of the wealthy, while aspiring to take their place.

It is imperative therefore that we ask what kind of totalitarianism we are discussing in eastern societies. More to the point, what are the historical contexts that allegedly birthed this totalitarianism? And finally, shouldn’t we ponder whether or not it is the totalitarianism of the rich, rather than that of the state, that we should condemn?

Denunciations of totalitarianism in the East should be approached on a comparative basis. We should distinguish between Orban’s rightfully penalized measures of ruling by decree and less stringent regulations meant to curb the unruliness of a class which has placed itself above the law. The Romanian government has been criticized for hefty fines, and rightfully so, but what are weapons of a state if its citizens don’t take them seriously? A few weeks ago, for example, a Romanian woman fined by an officer for not having under her possession a statement of responsibility[4] is reported to have declared that she didn’t care about breaking the law, as she “has enough money” to pay whatever fines she incurs. Such petty incidents show the individualism and private interest that has led to a sharp decline in moral responsibility. The defiance which some citizens showed for the law ­– both before and during the pandemic – clearly forced the state to up the rather mild fines it had issued during the first weeks of emergency.[5] Weakened by thirty years of oligarchic rule, the authority with which the police have handled the crisis in Romania, and the hefty fines, while not being abusive, have guaranteed the safety of its citizens, even if it took strict regulation to implement this.

The Romans had a powerful expression for the current situation in Romania: Dura lex, sed lex.[6] It is impossible to implement the rule of law when enforcement of strict regulations is immediately equated with totalitarian measures. The United States, Great Britain, and the cohort of western democracies which have set the standard for good governance in the world for the past few hundred years did not attain their ‘civilized’ status by going soft on crime ever since they rose to power on the world stage. Quite the contrary. Why do we cry foul when the East (and China’s case is even more representative here than that of eastern Europe) attempts to build democracy in ways that promote lawfulness and ensure good cohabitation in ways that do not always copy western standards? Should we tax eastern European governments for taking measures that seek to enforce the power of the state in a context in which the law of the jungle has replaced the rule of law? Why should we lend an ear to all these journalists denouncing state measures as attacks on human rights, and a return to totalitarian rule?

As long as eastern governments are not in cahoots with the oligarchic class, the measures taken by the state during the pandemic should not be seen as infringing on human rights, but as a way to battle lawlessness, including that of the continuously rising nouveau riche.

If the pandemic, as some have tried to show, helped reveal ways in which we are all the same, the measures to curb this lawlessness also revealed that petty corruption and disregard for the law are endemic in eastern societies. In this situation, the state is the only power that can curb that corruption, and attempt to preserve the social contract between classes. It is therefore imperative that states do not side with the rich in this conflict, but, while ensuring the return of the rule of law, demonstrate they still deserve the respect of all members of society.

During the pandemic, the Romanian government showed that it had the potential to regain some of the authority it so shamefully lost over three decades of postsocialist transition. The measures it takes from now on will indicate whether the state is indeed committed to offering safe living conditions and equal opportunities for all members of society. Whatever the case, the current situation has shown the nouveau riche that they are equally subjects of the law, and of a state that should drastically attempt to curb their power if that power is putting the others and the state itself in danger.

[1] A BBC article showing the faces of Orban, Putin, and Erdogan below the title Coronavirus: Is pandemic being used for power grab in Europe? is relevant in this regard: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52308002.

[2] Fox News, whether their reporting is assimiliable to good journalism practices or not, wrote that “Romania makes millions from handing out coronavirus fines” in an eponymously titled article: https://www.foxnews.com/world/romania-millions-coronavirus-fines

[3] Deutsche Welle reported that in 2017 Romania topped EU lists with 98 deaths per one million inhabitants: https://www.dw.com/en/romania-pushes-past-bulgaria-to-top-list-of-road-deaths-in-europe/a-43325623

[4] The Romanian state made it mandatory until May 15th for all citizens to carry a statement of responsibility meant to restrict unnecessary traffic during the height of the pandemic.

[5] During the first two weeks of state-decreed social distancing and restrictions on freedom of movement, which were ruled by military ordinance, the fines in Romania were much lower than between March 30th and May 15th, when the state of emergency legally ended.

[6] The law is strict, but it is the law.

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