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Several states in central and southeastern Europe are using the COVID-19 crisis to undermine the principles and institutions upholding the rule of law. First among them is Hungary.
To curb the COVID-19 outbreak, countries around the world have been forced to accept wide-ranging restrictions on public life. People have been told to stay at home, respect curfews and avoid any unnecessary travel — all in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.
Several countries in central and southeastern Europe, however, appear to be taking advantage of the crisis to undermine the rule of law, with Hungary leading the way. On March 20, Viktor Orban's right-wing nationalist government presented a draft law that would give the executive branch dictatorial powers for an unlimited period of time. Known as the "law to protect against the coronavirus," it's expected to be approved by next week.
Hungary has already called a state of emergency in order to respond to the outbreak, which as of Tuesday afternoon had infected 187 people and killed nine. But the special powers granted to the government during this time only last for 15 days and must be extended by parliament.
Endless state of emergency
Under the new law, which would come into force after a one-off vote by parliament, the state of emergency would be in place indefinitely, allowing the government to issue any decrees to protect the population and stabilize the economy that deviate from existing law. Parliamentary functions, elections and referendums would be suspended for the duration of the state of emergency; only the Constitutional Court would be allowed to convene. According to the draft law, it would be up to the government to decide when to end the state of emergency.
Two new offenses have also been introduced in the new law. Those found to be obstructing measures to fight the pandemic would face up to eight years in prison, depending on the severity of the offense, and anyone found spreading false or distorted information could be imprisoned for up to five years.
Parliament is expected to pass the law next week, with Orban's Fidesz party enjoying a two-thirds majority.
Opposition lawmakers have been unanimous in their criticism of the law, saying it would usher in "total power for Orban," giving him a "blank check to govern by decree." They have called for a limit on the law's period of validity and further legal guarantees.
Hungarian NGOs and critics have also expressed great concern, including left-wing philosopher, Gaspar Miklos Tamas. "When we see the Orban government using the epidemic as a pretext to introduce an open, structural dictatorship, how can we still believe that restrictive measures are justified and well-founded?" he wrote in an article for HVG magazine.
Not just Hungary
The COVID-19 outbreak has also served as a pretext for dubious restrictions in other countries across the region. In Slovakia, the new center-right government plans to pass a law allowing state institutions to access data from telecommunications operators. Prime Minister Igor Matovic argued on Tuesday that mobile phone tracking would ensure that people stay isolated while in quarantine.
Four of the Council of Europe's 47 member states — Armenia, Latvia, Moldova and Romania — have announced a so-called derogation from the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. The move allows these countries to suspend certain civil rights during the coronavirus state of emergency, though critics have said the measures are excessive.
On Sunday, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev partially vetoed a controversial law on emergency measures that would introduce prison sentences for spreading false information about infectious diseases, similar to those in Hungary. Another controversial regulation was intended to give authorization to the army to implement emergency measures, including identity checks usually carried out by the police. Surprisingly, some members of governing coalition accepted Radev's veto, but it remains to be seen whether the law will simply be reformulated. Parliament is expected to vote in the coming days.
Not the time for rule of law?
Coronavirus management has also been a source of controversy in the Western Balkans. In Serbia, democratic opposition politicians and independent legal experts have accused President Aleksandar Vucic of declaring a state of emergency on March 15 without any constitutional basis. The move, they say, has put Serbia "one step away from dictatorship."
In Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama announced harsh penalties for those who ignore curfews. Armored vehicles with machine guns have been sent to patrol the streets of the capital, Tirana, prompting sharp criticism from the opposition.
In Montenegro, the government has used its official website to publish and constantly update a list of names and addresses of quarantined citizens. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic has said the list is necessary because authorities aren't able to control all those confined to their homes, but citizens need to be informed. He called it a matter of life and health, adding that it wasn't the time to debate legal nuances and personal data protection. Human rights activists have been highly critical of the lists, calling them a "call to lynch."