Undoubtedly, a significant number of governmental reports, academic articles and op-eds about the Covid-19 and its likely future impacts in the world societies and economies have already been published. Though useful for planning, anyone attempting to establish prospective post-pandemic scenarios should – above all – be aware that this effort is filled with uncertainty as the repercussions of any contagious diseases are always dynamic. Namely, its reliance on constant evolving factors, is causing persistent shifts in its impacts principally for those of economic and political nature.
With this thought in mind, and as the doubts shrouding a possible second wave of this pandemic slowly erode, it seems important to look at historical instances of uncontrollable transmission of disease and to understand how deeply it can politically impact human societies, albeit contextualizing the obvious differences brought by time and different social and technological backgrounds. Still, having these aspects in consideration, it should be noted the common denominator that the current pandemic has with other historical health emergencies: the absence of medical countermeasures that can truly eliminate the disease.
In fact, the failure to produce an “effective, no side effects” Covid-19 vaccine so far, led Governments to implement quarantines, which from the Black Plague to the SARS epidemic, proved to be of the one of the few historically effective methods to slow the spread of disease. A report, published by the WHO in 2006, characterized the use of quarantines in the SARS 2003 epidemic to be “old fashioned and labour intensive” although effective as “these measures slowed the virus’ spread, and, in the end, contributed to its containment”. This lesson proves to be of particular importance in a time where the economic and social pressure to end lockdowns have succeeded in coercing Governments to ease the implemented containment measures, even if any positive outcomes of the latter are yet to be seen.
As stated by a report of the “Konrad Adenauer Center for International Relations and Security Studies” (KACIRSS) on the diseases’ impact on political stability, “a high level of virulent infectious diseases may even destabilize politically stable and economically strong countries, like European or North-American countries”, making relevant any effort of anticipating the reactions of the masses in the midst of a health emergency, so to contain any negative effects brought by it.
One of the most significant signs of political disruption caused by a pandemic event is the depletion of trust in elected leaders, as they seem unfit to tackle the challenges, which, if uncontained, may constitute as a prequel to a larger erosion of confidence in political institutions. This absence of trust leans on factors such as “high morbidity and mortality rates, a lack of medical knowledge and effective treatment options, and general unfamiliarity with the disease” that unchecked, could lead to higher “destabilizing effect of the disease as the population’s perceived (and real) risk increases.”
Case in point, as the plague in Athens, during the Peloponnesian War, took its toll on its population, historians reported a detrimental effect on Pericles leadership and other elements of the Athenian society, leading to anarchy and, ultimately, the end of its democracy. Similar conclusions could be drafted from the Black Plague, which had a significant impact on monarchical authority in Europe and other surrounding regions.
Taking these historical episodes into considerations, as we witnessed statements of political leaders downplaying the full impact of Covid-19, solely to later advocate – sometimes against scientific advice – a quick resumption of economic activity, it is important for these high dignitaries to remember that an unprepared society for a second wave will likely not be forgotten by its voters. Furthermore, this sort of impact should speak volumes for governments whose leaderships are near the end of their mandates or are based upon parliamentary coalitions that may no longer be viable within an unstable political context. Worse, in a time where social media and fake news are highly influential, this absence of political trust could be seen as an opportunity for populist political movements, as well as extremist groups, to gain momentum and harvest additional supporters for their causes. To this equation, we need to add profound financial repercussions that the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to have on international economies and, consequently, in the population’s discontentment, considering possible signs of lockdown fatigue if a return to status quo ante is required.
Consequently, a second Covid-19 wave, converged with an economic downturn, could carry another political effect, namely in terms of a State’s potential political regime change. Already mentioned examples of how the Athens plague undermined its democracy or how the Black Plague may have impacted feudalism in Europe need to serve as a testimony to democratic leaderships of how disease infested societies, if unchecked, may provoke/accelerate structural modifications in political regimes. Hopefully, recent decisions taken by a Central European government, still a formal democracy, may constitute only a temporary exception to the witnessed democratic progresses the world has seen during the past three decades.
Historical epidemic occurrences may also hold valuable lessons for the European Union (EU). Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the Catholic Church of the 14th century and the EU of today, both share the common denominator of being transnational entities with significant political influence on countries in Europe. Much has been written on the detrimental impact that the Black Plague had over the Catholic Church political influence in 14th century Europe, as the members of the clergy were unable to provide any answers to the needs of Europeans faced with rising casualties, causing a “decline in their confidence (…) of the institution of the Church”.
Less than seven centuries later, polls published by the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit clearly state that “In Spain, 90% of respondents consider that the EU is helping “a little” or “not at all” to resolve the situation caused by pandemic” while “88% of Italians feel that the other EU countries are not helping Italy and 79% think the same of the EU institutions. Still, a relative majority (42,6%) do not want to leave neither the EU nor the Eurozone”. Given these numbers, it is becoming increasingly discernible that citizens of some Covid-19 hardly stricken countries questioned the EU’s lack of leadership or solidarity to support their Member-States when in dire situations. Doubts could also be raised on the possible political effects of a second Covid-19 wave on the EU – Member-States relationship, if health and financial consequences remain unaddressed.
But even though the real impact of this coronavirus crisis on the Italians’ opinion towards EU remains to be seen, the apologetic letter written by the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to justify the initial paralysis of the European institutions while staring at the Italy’s health system collapse, appears to be a good omen. Furthermore, the EU leaders approval of a recovery fund to mitigate the deep financial and economic impacts of the pandemic are also vital steps, especially if the approved measures are proportionally beneficial to the affected Member-States and particularly their citizens, as otherwise a hypothetical second Covid-19 wave may prove to be more than just another obstacle in the path to Europe’s unity.
Finally, considering the profound international impacts of Covid-19, it is difficult not to envisage on how terrorists might be inspired by the detrimental effects of disease on societies and how deadly pathogens could provide a significant boost for their propaganda necessities. Even though bioterrorism, and its contributing factors, has been substantially addressed by academia and official reports, it is still important to understand that several of the technical barriers preventing the terrorist use of pathogens have decreased over the last two decades, so new approaches are in dire need.
In 2015, I co-authored an article with Anne-Yolande Bilala that addressed the possible beneficial effects brought by the implementation of a “Bioterrorism Prevention Initiative” for the mitigation of this particular threat. Regardless of any merits embedded in this proposal, it would be of crucial importance if initiatives with similar desiderata could see the light of day in a post Covid-19 security context, so to decrease any risks of nonstate actors producing, acquiring and/or disseminating biological agents.
The above mentioned historical events may also provide important lessons, in terms of a future pandemic preparedness, for Governments to grasp, the most notable being that Biodefense needs to become a de facto priority, while adopting and investing in a more preventive posture towards biological menaces, so to anticipate emergencies of global and catastrophic nature. Case in point, regardless of the billions of Euros invested on healthcare every year, “global postures remain primarily response-driven and reactive to a dynamic and volatile emerging disease landscape. New epidemics are often met with an emergency response, after-action reviews and a promise to rethink prevention.”
Serving as an additional testimony on the absence of structural changes over the last years, it is also important to remember the already mentioned WHO post-SARS report that concludes that “communicable diseases had been given insufficient attention, with doctors more interested in high-tech fields such as neurosurgery and molecular biology. Awareness levels were low and infection-control procedures had become slack. In sum, public-health systems were simply not ready for what happened.” A preventive posture to avoid the same scenario would entail, for example, improved synergies between health and military research facilities, and a substantial increase of financial resources for the latter institutions as well for universities, research centers, and the private sector so to monitor and develop new solutions aiming to tackle emerging diseases.
Finally, the preventive posture could also result in the formalization of a dual-use for national industries. One of the most positive aspects emerging from this pandemic episode was the ability for some industries and services to adapt their assembly lines in order to produce ventilators, masks and other PPE production. Although very commendable, the majority of these decisions were ad hoc and solely based on goodwill. A future proactive/preventive approach, in which Biodefense is a strategic cornerstone, will likely require that local industries– either within a national or regional context – have a pre-designated role for future pandemic episodes.
This “dual-use” purpose would likely require that Governments leverage lessons learned from the current pandemic, in order to anticipate needs, and negotiate with local industries what their future roles could be in a posterior health crisis. Such negotiation would call for exceptional skills in terms of planning, besides constant updates, as some companies may go bankrupt or transfer their facilities to another country. Nonetheless using a long term perspective to define the blueprints for the role of the civil society in a pandemic scenario may prove to be a fruitful exercise, as, when necessary, societies will be better prepared for a next catastrophic biological event.
When looking back in History to find other examples of epidemics, one could argue that the dimension of human fatalities was much larger or that the available scientific know-how to deal with the latter did not give societies sufficient countermeasures to tackle the disease. Both present valid points, but more important than lethality rates is the threat perception of the affected populations, the de facto origin of political instability, which in an age where information instantly travels across the globe and when efficient medical countermeasures against Covid-19 are still lacking, tends to be even more palpable.
As political leadership in democracies has, over the years, become a little more than a voters’ expectations management exercise, political stability in a time of pandemics is likely to be more dependent on how fast governments implement mitigation measures coupled with communication transparency by leaderships and the fact-based science behind unpopular decisions, instead of finger pointing/social dividing speeches that, ultimately, will only lead to ghastlier public health scenarios and to a widespread of social turmoil.
American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war
Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?
A corrupted country — Introduction
Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.
If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.
The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war
That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.
Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.
Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.
In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.
Chasing the oligarchs
In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.
On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.
The US strike back
Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal; and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.
The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.
Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.
Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians
Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it
undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.
Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.
Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.
From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.
True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further
Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure
Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.
Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.
With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.
The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.
This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management.
Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.
The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions.
The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.
The Leaders of the Western World Meet
The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India. There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto. Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.
Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon. St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year. It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.
France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada. What do the rich talk about? Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans. Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem. As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.
The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26 in Glasgow later this year in November. Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general. The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth. And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.
The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries. Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax. There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.
America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism. But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy: China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger. In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible. He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.
Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic. India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia. A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions. On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.
It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.
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