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 deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.