Authoritarian Regimes and COVID-19

CSPS Fellow Courtney Kayser discusses how we should be hesitant to laud authoritarian regimes as better than democracies when handling COVID-19. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan show that there have been a variety of authoritarian responses, not all of which have been successful.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the global economy and thrown the lives of countless individuals into uncertainty and hardship. The news has been reporting the developments in larger, more populous states. China and South Korea’s success in curtailing the pandemic versus the American failure is a frequent refrain. The continuing high rate of infection in the US has led to questions of the effectiveness of democracies in handling pandemics. Unlike autocracies, democracies cannot issue mandates as easily, nor can they as readily enforce these mandates.

What this does not capture, however, is the variety of authoritarian responses – and not all of these responses have been successful in reducing the spread of the virus. In fact, many of these strategies would have been devastating if these states had larger populations and had been more interconnected with the global economy prior to the outbreak.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have not received significant attention from mainstream media, but the differences between the two demonstrate the variety of approaches seen in poorer authoritarian countries. Located in Central Asia and sandwiched between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran, Central Asian states are often overlooked in favor of their neighbors.

The Center for Systemic Peace reports both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to be autocracies in its Global Report 2017: Conflict, Governance, and State Fragility. Both have repressive governments that highly curtail human rights and present few options for political expression. The two border one another, experience similar economic pressures, and have similar external threats and concerns. Arguably, these two states should be pursuing similar policies in response to COVID-19. Both provide an interesting comparison: while one has further isolated itself, the other has forged stronger connections with the international community.

Turkmenistan has reported zero cases of COVID-19 – despite international observers believing that the virus has spread. The states surrounding Turkmenistan, including Turkmenistan’s neighbor, Uzbekistan,  have all reported cases, and they have instituted numerous measures to curtail the spread – from quarantines to border shutdowns. Additionally, Iran is bordered to the Southwest by Iran, which was one of the earliest epicenters for COVID-19 outside of China. In fact, besides small island nations, Turkmenistan is one of only two states in Eurasia to report zero cases of COVID-19.Turkmenistan joins rather illustrious company – the only other state to report zero cases is North Korea.

In addition to not reporting cases, Turkmenistan has also not been allowing outside observers into the state. The World Health Organization (WHO) was only given the go-ahead to send teams to Turkmenistan in August. There have also been inconsistent government edicts. Initially, individuals were fined in Turkmenistan for wearing masks. This has since been reversed, as officials cite a surging pneumonia outbreak.

Traditionally, Uzbekistan has been more isolated than Turkmenistan. While Turkmenistan has aimed to expand its oil and gas exports after the Soviet collapse, Uzbekistan has still not wholly transitioned away from the Soviet-era command economy. In an effort to stave off the 1991 economic crash, Uzbekistan declined structural adjustment programs, avoided shock therapy, and rejected closer integration with both the global economy and its own neighbors in an effort to attain economic autarky.

This history would make one assume that Uzbekistan would follow a similar path to Turkmenistan. However, unlike its neighbor, Uzbekistan has reported over 45,000 cases. The Uzbek government has allowed in outside observers and has accepted $3.9 million in aid from the United States, and $200 million from the World BankThe government instituted lockdowns and business closures, along with strong social distancing campaigns. Like most authoritarian regimes, there are concerns for human rights, the targeting of journalists, and the accurate dissemination of information to the citizenry. However, unlike Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan has been transparent about its cases and has been accepting international aid, despite its historical tendencies.

The Turkmen government’s actions, including denying the outbreak of the virus and fining individuals for wearing masks, hindered its ability to curtail the spread of the virus. Its means of dealing with the outbreak is anathema to that pursued by Uzbekistan – another similar, authoritarian regime. These two autocracies have pursued opposing strategies, and neither has had what can be described as a resounding success. It is easy to point to the failure of the United States in curtailing the spread and to its high death rate and believe that there is something flawed about democracies. But, the US response is an outlier among developed countries. Authoritarian regimes have an advantage in that they can control the narrative to their citizens and institute repressive policies. This does not mean that the autocracy has the capacity to truly mitigate the virus. Nor does it mean that authoritarian regimes will focus their coercive power onto halting the spread of the virus.

We can critique the US response and the responses of fellow democracies, but that does not mean that we should laud authoritarian regimes, especially in the absence of full transparency. Turkmenistan is undoubtably concealing cases from its own population and the world, to the detriment of its citizens. The degree of the obfuscation varies, but we should not point to authoritarian regimes as entities that inherently address health pandemics more effectively than democracies.

Courtney Kayser is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She has a Master’s degree from GMU in Political Science with a concentration in International Security and  graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Philosophy, a Certificate in Russian and East European Studies, and a minor in Russian language from Seton Hall University. She is proficient in Russian and French, and has an elementary proficiency in Ukrainian. Her research focuses on intrastate violence, civil war, and ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia and post-Soviet space.

Photo can be found here.