Bouncing back again: How past crises can help Eastern Europe fight Covid-19

“Do you know what ‘covid’ means in Bulgarian?”, a friend asked me recently. “It is a combination of Kostov and Videnov”, she laughed, citing two emblematic prime ministers from the 1990s – the latter notorious for having brought hyperinflation to Bulgaria, and the former for having undertaken the painful reforms needed thereafter.

With the recent wave of special legislation limiting citizens’ rights, many pundits have drawn comparisons with the communist era. For the vast majority of Bulgarians, however, the deepest crisis in memory is related to the 1990s. The era saw scarcity, sudden social disparities, political polarisation, and hyperinflation run through society like electric shocks. It is that fearful experience that probably motivates the fairly high level of public discipline in Bulgarians’ response to covid-19.

The return of the strong state is now a fact of life across Europe. Prime ministers and executive presidents enjoy wide support. Extraordinary times require strong governments and extraordinary measures – a principle that Hungary has taken to the extreme. The suspension of the Hungarian parliament and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule by decree without a sunset clause triggered fierce reactions in most European capitals. Curiously enough, while the European Union hasn’t suspended Hungary’s voting rights through the Article 7 procedure yet and the European People’s Party still hasn’t expelled Orbán’s Fidesz, the markets may do the trick. Less than 24 hours after Orbán’s power grab, Hungary’s central bank had to act to arrest a sharp fall in the value of the forint. Following that, the government withdrew a plan to strip power from mayors.

A week earlier, the government in Bulgaria ended its attempt to limit freedom of expression, probably out of fear of dropping into the same group as Hungary.

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Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is the head of ECFR’s Wider Europe programme and a senior policy fellow at ECFR. She is the co-founder of Sofia Platform, a venue for dialogue between members of NGOs, the media, and politics from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. From 2010 to 2013 she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the political cabinet of Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov.She has been the head of the Bulgarian office of the European Council for Foreign Relations since 2003, as well as programme director for Foreign Policy Studies at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. Between 2004 and 2006 she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato. She has been a supervising editor for Foreign Policy – Bulgaria magazine since its launch in 2005.