Post-COVID Eastern Europe: Equation with many unknowns
From the very early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, discussions about how it will change the world began. The overwhelming majority of commentators of international affairs believe that Europe (and the rest of the world) will be a completely different place than before the coronavirus. Although the social and economic consequences of the pandemic are already obvious, it is definitely too early to tell that the crisis will fundamentally change the international political order and the way the economic system will be organised.
The big paradox is that, in spite of the far-reaching prognosis that “the world will not be the same anymore”, there is an expectation that things will return to the way they were before.
Thus, what should be expected? Any honest observer should acknowledge that at present (as of early June) it is impossible to forecast the post COVID-19 world. This, to be sure, also applies to the situation in Eastern Europe and its relations with the European Union. This task can be compared to an equation with many unknowns. Yet, let’s try to determine the present state of play in the region which could be helpful in shedding some light on its future. Here are some observations.
First, Eastern European countries have been affected by the coronavirus to varying degrees. Belarus has the largest number of infected cases per capita (1/233), significantly surpassing Russia (1/366) and Moldova (1/475); the situation in Ukraine is much better (1/1,583). However, the region is only halfway through the pandemic – numbers are expected to substantially increase.
Second, there is no doubt the various lockdowns will hit the economies of those countries fairly hard. According to the most optimistic scenario, GDPs will fall this year by 5-7 per cent. In Russia, the unprecedented collapse in crude oil prices has enhanced the crisis and greatly limits the government’s budget spending. In Belarus, the recession already started as a result of the interruption of Russian oil supplies and will be further intensified by the pandemic.
Third, as the economic situation is strongly related to general social stability, the key question concerns political implications of the pandemic. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is at a record low. Fewer state funds means more fights within ruling elite factions. Although the Kremlin in the past effectively tried to channel people’s anger in the form of foreign interventions, this time they face numerous obstacles. In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka faces the most difficult election ever (August 9th) and the domestic conditions are particularly unfavourable. There are many signals that the public is angry with the authorities due to their failure in fighting the coronavirus, which has caused a high infection rate. In addition, opposition candidates are stronger than usual this time around. All these factors create a picture of uncertainty and increase the risk of a forceful solution to Belarus’s unfrozen relations with the EU. Probably the person with the most stable position in the region is the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where at least half the voters still declare their confidence in him.
Fourth, the pandemic may be a good moment for the EU to strengthen its presence in the Eastern Partnership countries. A few waves of swift and smart financial assistance packages by the European Commission have been noticed and contribute to improving its image in the region. The EU has also a chance to be a key foreign partner – extending a helping hand to its neighbours. However, much will depend on how the EU will handle the pandemic at home and what kind of EU will emerge out of the crisis. Recently, the launching of a 750-billion-euro recovery package proposal has been an optimistic sign of the EU’s vitality. Yet in the next few months it will face many internal and external challenges. Those related to its Eastern neighbours will probably remain in the shadows of issues like its relations with China and the US. At the same time, Russia remains among the EU’s external priorities and pre-COVID-19 calls of Emmanuel Macron to essentially reset Brussels’ ties with Moscow will definitely return to the “menu”.
Overall, it is impossible to know what comes after the pandemic since too many elements are still uncertain, including the depth of the economic crisis and when scientists will find an effective vaccine against the virus. Although major shifts in international and economic systems due to COVID-19 seem unlikely, there could still be real trouble, especially in Belarus and Russia. Lessons learnt from history show that huge cataclysms did not so much generate fundamental changes, but accelerated those that were inevitable anyway. If it happens this time, the unexpected pandemic may be a turning point in the history of post-Soviet Eastern Europe.
Wojciech Konończuk is the deputy director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.
This text is part of a special expert survey titled “Geopolitics and coronavirus” co-financed through an agreement with the Eastern Europe Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.