The Pandemic in Eurasia, and Preparing for Elections in the US

This 12th edition of Freedom House’s newsletter on the coronavirus and its impact of democracy features pieces on the pandemic in Eurasia, and how to prepare for a disputed election in the United States.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

Welcome back to Freedom House’s newsletter on the coronavirus and its impact on democracy. As ever, we hope you and yours are healthy and well.

This week we turn our focus to Eurasia, with two pieces by Freedom House staff examining different aspects of the pandemic’s influence on governance there. Russia now has the fourth-largest number of cases reported globally, and other countries in the region are also experiencing spikes in their case counts. Some governments are reapplying restrictions that had previously been lifted. Within this context, the two articles explore various state efforts to control the information space and step up monitoring of the population.

First, Senior Program Associate April Gordon points out the uneven responses to pandemic-related disinformation in the cluster of countries just to the east of the European Union, and argues that neither the EU nor global institutions have provided countries such as Ukraine and Moldova with clear advice on how to combat disinformation while respecting human rights. She calls on democratic governments and international entities to develop a detailed framework for addressing the problem that explicitly weighs the human rights impact of any restrictions.

Russia protests term limit ref
People gather in Moscow to demonstrate against Putin's presidential terms. Image credit: Elena Rostunova /

In the second piece, Program Officer Peter Podkopaev looks at Russia’s efforts to control dissent both before and during the pandemic. On the one hand, the state has stepped back from some of its most audacious projects, like an outright ban on the messaging app Telegram and an attempt to wall off Russia's digital sphere from the uncensored global internet. On the other hand, the government has escalated its comparatively low-tech persecution of individual social media users, and started to deploy more intrusive surveillance technology under the pretext of fighting the pandemic. Russia may lack the capacity to become a model digital police state, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Elections in the United States

Our website features a new Q&A on the upcoming US elections with Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the University of California–Irvine and an expert on election law and administration. We asked Rick, who is an adviser for our annual Freedom in the World report, to answer some questions about the possibility of a “disputed” outcome in November. His responses give us all quite a few things to worry about—including unreasonable expectations for when results will be known in a close election, and attempts by President Trump to delegitimize mail-in voting at a time when in-person voting could pose health risks—but also some advice on how to prepare.

Around the World

Here are more key stories we are watching around the world:

  • Rina Chadran writes for the Thomson Reuters Foundation about new apps that are being widely adopted to monitor citizens and keep track of the spread of the virus. The apps carry big risks in terms of new surveillance opportunities for states, and they disfavor marginalized populations that may not have easy access to smartphones or apps in general.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has signed a new antiterrorism law that features vaguely defined offenses and authorizes extreme constraints on the rights of the accused, including detention without charges for up to 24 days. The law could be a powerful tool for suppressing criticism of the government’s gross mismanagement of COVID-19, and it comes soon after UN experts renewed their call for an on-the-ground investigation into human rights abuses in the country.
  • Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have finally arrived in Turkmenistan, the only country in Central Asia that denies having had any coronavirus cases.
  • The pandemic has effectively marooned migrant domestic workers in the Middle East. Such workers, many of them from countries in Asia and Africa, are unemployed due to the crisis, but also unable to return home from locations like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The lack of adequate human rights protections for these workers before the pandemic has now left them vulnerable to its worst consequences.
  • The government of Nicaragua is firing health workers for speaking out about its pandemic response. Human Rights Watch has reported at least 10 cases of health workers who were fired after criticizing the government’s performance. The leadership in Nicaragua has been largely in denial about the spread of COVID-19.

Global Analysis

Here are some useful new resources that have been released since our last newsletter:

  • Two new projects help keep track of how COVID-19 is affecting democracy around the world. Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) offers a fascinating tool on “Pandemic Backsliding.” Drawing on three different indices, it allows users to explore the risk of democratic backsliding posed by pandemic response measures in a given country. International IDEA has added a COVID-19 update component to its mapping of global democracy, providing a convenient interface for viewing recent developments.

That’s all for this week. Stay safe, and stay free.

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