Home / Europe / Lockdowns, disinformation and telling signals: Lessons from the Western Balkans’ response to COVID-19

Lockdowns, disinformation and telling signals: Lessons from the Western Balkans’ response to COVID-19

April 13, 2020

By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow

Early in March, as the first cases of infection were confirmed, most Western Balkan countries sought to prevent the spread of coronavirus by imposing tough measures and strict restrictions. Borders were closed, lockdowns were announced, and in some countries curfews were considered a necessary next step. The suspension of normal life has been forcing governments to take quick action this month, and political elites across the region are being presented with unprecedented opportunities to show their true intentions. As character is revealed during a crisis, all decisions made during the current one are telling of what lies in store for each of the Western Balkan countries – and there are important lessons to be learned and applied when this period of collective quarantine is over.

To prevent numbers from escalating, states across the Western Balkans have been taking a range of steps in the past month. Less than a week after cases of COVID-19 started being confirmed, schools were closed, public gatherings were restricted, and travel to and from countries deemed coronavirus hotspots was suspended indefinitely. Serbia and North Macedonia declared a state of emergency in mid-March, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania joined Belgrade in imposing curfews on their citizens. Elections in North Macedonia and Serbia, due to take place in April, have been postponed until they can safely take place. At the end of March, Albania took an unexpected decision, and announced that the lockdown will remain in place until the end of the coronavirus outbreak.

Decisions to impose tough measures and strict restrictions, and the fact that they were taken early by governments across the region, becomes less surprising when considering the countries’ hospital capacities. A BIRN investigation, conducted in most Western Balkan countries, revealed low numbers of hospital beds, necessary equipment, quarantine centres, and even medical professionals. Concerns have also been raised over how efficiently testing is being carried out, and whether or not healthcare authorities have the means to improve this. It is small wonder, then, that governments have been reluctant to publicise this information – and that they are willing to take any steps necessary to avoid high numbers of severe cases.

A further cause for concern was the European Union’s initial announcement that exports of some medical protective equipment to non-EU countries have been restricted in an effort to keep sufficient supplies within the bloc. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic condemned Brussels’ decision, and turned to China for financial and material assistance. As criticism and anger increased, the European Union announced this month that Western Balkan countries can now take part in the joint procurement programme to buy protective medical equipment, and that 40 million euro will be made available for the region.

Uncertain times call for swift action, and living through a global historical event means adapting to changed rules and circumstances. Unfortunately, however, the opportunity to declare a state of emergency, along with all the powers this conveys to governments, can lead to abuses. Neighbouring Hungary is currently the best example of this, with its parliament granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree starting this month. The new law has no time limit, and has eliminated all checks on Orban’s mandate – a move that the Hungarian prime minister has been dreaming to make for over a decade.

While none of the Western Balkans leaders have gone this far yet, a few troubling developments indicate that governments are exploiting the pandemic for their own advantage. Classifying the measures as necessary to prevent further infection, some ruling elites have decided to enhance surveillance, increase censorship, and restrict the free flow of information. Phone tracking is reportedly being used to limit freedom of movement, and heavy fines and arrests have been imposed for those who spread panic and disinformation. The latter in particular has led to abuses, as countries like Montenegro and Serbia use this as an opportunity to silence critics of the government. The latter had to revoke a decree which said that information about the coronavirus outbreak can only come from Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and those authorised by her, while the former came under fire for publishing the personal health data of people infected with COVID-19. Montenegro’s government has also been accused of making decisions without consulting parliament – despite the fact that Podgorica has not declared a state of emergency.

It is Kosovo, however, that has experienced opportunism and political manoeuvres at their finest this past month. The government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, in power for less than two months, lost a no-confidence vote initiated by one of its own coalition partners, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Kurti opposed a state of emergency that would give President Hashim Thaci more power, as it is likely that the latter – a known supporter of territory exchange as a solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute – would have used this opportunity to reach agreement on the infamous land swap deal with Belgrade. As things stand, Kosovo will remain without a government for the foreseeable future – as elections are unlikely to take place until the end of the pandemic.

Despite being confined to their homes for the time being, the people of Kosovo were quick to react to this political development. In Pristina, thousands of citizens banged pots and pans from their windows and balconies to express their opposition to the toppling of Kurti’s government, which many consider an injustice. This symbolic act of protest, in a time when the means to show outrage at self-interested political decisions are limited, sends a powerful message. That political elites are taking advantage of the crisis and seeking to abuse their newly-increased powers will not be forgotten – and the protest movements building in the last few years need only streets and public squares to be available again in order to pick up where they left off.

As both the bad and the good come to light in a crisis, alongside news of self-interested decision-making, the Western Balkans have also been the source of countless stories of care, support and cross-border solidarity. When Zagreb was hit by a powerful earthquake on 22 March, Belgrade’s and Sarajevo’s citizens opened their windows and balconies to clap in support of and solidarity with their Croatian neighbours. Across the region, young volunteers have been bringing food to the elderly, and medical students have been offering to volunteer in hospitals or babysit the children of doctors, nurses and police officers. In response to the acute shortage of healthcare resources, tech enthusiasts have been using 3D printers to make medical equipment, which they have been distributing for free to hospitals and clinics. Unity and involvement have the potential now to become a pattern – and the opportunity to transform both state and society should not be missed.

The Western Balkans were also the source of positive international news this month, with two notable developments experienced by countries in the region. On 2 April, North Macedonia became NATO’s newest member, ending a decades-long process that saw the country change its name in order to advance on the path of European and North Atlantic integration. Just over a week before this, on 26 March, North Macedonia also joined Albania in celebrating another piece of good news – European Union leaders finally gave the two countries formal approval to begin talks to join the bloc. While no date has been set for the commencement of these talks, the decision can be taken as a sign that life has not been suspended entirely – and that now, more than ever, progress on all fronts should be a key priority.

The spread of COVID-19 has been met with quick and restrictive action in the Western Balkans, but it has also brought to light what lessons can be learned and applied once the pandemic is over. Changed rules and tough measures are to be expected, but any abuses and self-interested decisions on the part of ruling elites should not be forgotten. When the coronavirus crisis comes to an end, life should not return to normal – as the opportunity to build a better one will be within touching distance.

Image: Communal truck spraying over streets and sidewalks to prevent coronavirus spreading in the city of Doboj, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Jovica96 via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.