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Freedom House says Eastern European and Balkans democracies are in danger. COVID-19 has opened the door to surveillance, and threatens democracies from Hungary to India to Israel.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with this. The COVID-19 has set off a wave of authoritarian reactions throughout the world. Some places just need a little nudge, but the consequences could be far reaching and frightening.

Freedom House published a report on the state of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, stating that the number of democracies in that region is at the lowest in 25 years. Of course, what Freedom House did not say, or could not as a foundation serving the interests of United States, is that the rise of the right is the result of the failures of neo-liberalism, more specifically neo-liberal capitalism, and as well the authoritarian roots from which many of these governments sprang. Specifically, Freedom House says that three countries no longer qualify as democracies: Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia.

The report places much of the blame on the rise of authoritarianism or oppression in these countries as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. You also have to remember the populist far right has been whittling away at democratic institutions in this region and around the world for a long time now, long before COVID-19. But the pandemic that struck the world clearly is an opportunists moment for the right. When the Hungarian government ordered a massive reform of the school curriculum, onlookers were horrified that antisemites and Nazi sympathizers were now part of the canon of the Hungarian education system.

Looking beyond Eastern Europe, our guest today, Sonali Kolhatkar, outlined in her articles for CounterPunch and Asia Times, looked at India, Israel, China, and other nations that unleashed deeply troubling policies to surveil and control their populations. While [inaudible 00:01:34] United States seemed to fall apart in the face of COVID. So let us once again welcome Sonali Kolhatkar. Good to have you with us, Sonali.

Sonali Kolhatka…: Thank you, Marc. It’s lovely to be with you.

Marc Steiner: Always good to have you here. Sonali is an award winning journalist, host and executive producer of Rising Up With Sonali, a nationally syndicated TV and radio show, and she’s a weekly columnist for Truthdig and it’s always great to have her here on The Real News. So let’s start with this report itself. I mean, so as I said earlier, Freedom House, we know is kind of a liberal capitalist institution, very U.S. centric in it’s view, defines Venezuela as well as one of the least free countries in the world and Israel as one of the greatest free countries in the world, despite what they do to Palestinian citizens and the occupation. But when you look at their report, I’m curious what you think about what they came up with. We’re starting with the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the methodology they used and how are they define democracy. I mean, how do you read their report?

Sonali Kolhatka…: Well, I mean, I’m glad that it is being pointed out that countries like Hungary, especially under Viktor Orban, are devolving from being more democratic to really losing any semblance of what’s considered democratic representation or rule in Hungary seems to be the most extreme example where essentially President Orban is ruling by decree and has an indefinite time period where he can do so, but many right-wing governments that have that authoritarian streak have fallen in that direction. In addition to Serbia and Israel that you mentioned, you see a country like India, which I point out in my article, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi with no advanced notice just locked down a country of more than a billion people for four weeks in a way that was deeply devastating, especially to

India’s poor and minority and internally displaced population.
There’ve been a lot of people that have died as a result. And although that lockdown is now increasing that right-wing authoritarian streak in the Modi government came out full force. We saw that in several other countries as well.

And then you have countries like the U.K. and to a greater extent, the U.S. and even Sweden, to an extent, where they’ve just taken a blase approach to the coronavirus. When you have a pandemic such as this, it demands an organized, science-based, democratic approach to tackling this crisis because you need public buy-in and public cooperation in the public interest, you have to actually care about the public. So you have to be a representative democracy. And the U.K. and the U.S. and Sweden, these countries that were ostensibly democratic, and this is the part that Freedom House didn’t touch upon, have sort of absolved themselves of responsibility to varying degrees, have adopted unscientific notions of so-called herd immunity, which is something that you want a vaccine to confer, not natural immunity, because otherwise you will just basically kill many, many people. And I think the U.S. has been the worst example of that, where we’ve basically had no organized response to this crisis beyond Trump wanting reelection.

Marc Steiner: It’s not funny, but just it’s… The absurdity of it makes me laugh sometimes. And the danger of the absurdity makes me cringe, but when you take… Winding my way back to your articles, I think they were really, really good pieces that you wrote. You know, when you look at Greece and Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, that their institutions are deeply under attack. [inaudible 00:05:24] you talked about Hungry, and they’re just almost like sliding very deeply into becoming the fascistic state. So how do we begin to define the differences why certain places become so openly fascistic about what happened in the face of COVID, using that as the reason to kind of go in? Others are more subtle, like in a sense, when you look at Israel and some other places they’re saying they’re doing this for the good of the population, monitoring people getting on and off buses, using all the technology to kind of interfere with our individual freedoms. So they’re all responding very differently. I mean, how do you look at this rise of the right and how each place is reacting so definitely in the face of all this?

Sonali Kolhatka…: I think one unifying thread through many of these troubling responses is the notion that elites will take advantage of populations in crisis. You know, Naomi Klein has applied this to capitalism. She calls Disaster Capitalism or the Shock Doctrine, but you can just as easily apply it to this idea of authoritarianism, that when elites see an opportunity to take advantage of a crisis, they can grab it. So in the case of Israel, it has grabbed the opportunity to surveil so strongly every citizen in its nation, similarly with a country like Hungary, similarly to Serbia, where you could call it disaster authoritarianism, if you will. And in the United States, you’ve seen disaster capitalism much more than disaster authoritarianism. The rich and elite wealthy Americans have literally made money off of the crisis. Corporations have made money, publicly traded companies have gotten taxpayer backed loans.

The wealthy have benefited tremendously, not just from the initial tax reform law that Trump and the Republicans put in place, which was of course pre-COVID, but then they’ve reaped even greater benefits in the economic stimulus packages they have managed to… And they have their sights set on future bills that they hope will decimate the American public even more. So I think if we look at it from the perspective of elites taking advantage of moments of crisis when vulnerable populations are turning to them for leadership, they will either push towards authoritarianism, a surveillance state, a fascistic authoritarian, a non-representative democracy and, or neo-liberal capitalist ideologies that essentially view that if the rich are well off, then society as a whole is well off. Our worth is measured by the wealth of richest people in that society. And then you have other really great examples of countries going other ways and that I point out in my articles, such as New Zealand, such as South Korea, where strong democratic institutions, and science-based approaches to government have shown that you don’t have to go down that path of authoritarian or disaster capitalism.

Marc Steiner: So let’s look at that for a moment. I mean, so here you have the United States that has a very kind of libertarian streak as part of its philosophical underpinning, whether that’s mythology, reality, it’s there and people believe it. So you have these armed men and women storming capitols with guns out, rifles out, and refusing to take part in this and saying, “you’re going after my liberties.” But then you have other countries, like as you talked about New Zealand and Taiwan and Finland and other places that are taking a very different approach. And these are also longstanding democracies, quote unquote. And so the paths are very different. And then you have places like both China and Israel that are really… Their approach is extremely Orwellian for want of a better term in terms of what they’re creating. So, I wonder if you take all of those together, what do you think that portends? I mean, where do you think that takes us in the next six months, seven months as you see all this unfolding?

Sonali Kolhatka…: Oh, well, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure what the authoritarian regimes will likely end up as, but I do know one thing, that when you have to respond in a public health emergency like the one we face, you need public buy-in. You cannot… On the surface, it might seem as though a top down strict, rigid authoritarian government, say like China, can succeed more efficiently at quelling a virus because you can just impose without any democratic questioning quarantines and lockdowns and all of that. However, there’s only so much that an authoritarian government can do to keep it citizens in control. Eventually the human longing for freedom rises up and people pushback and people break curfews and break rules because they won’t allow themselves to be pushed too far. And so you have to public buy-in in a reasonable way.

And that’s what countries like Taiwan, as you mentioned, Finland, South Korea and New Zealand have shown that there is a much more nuanced approach that will actually work where you have a democratic government that is very transparent about why there’s a need to protect public health, what needs to be done in order to protect public health. Here’s all the science, here’s the things that we’re going to trust because they make sense, and we are all going to do this together. Here’s the financial support that you may need to weather the storm. And we’re going to be really, really strict. And we need for all of you to be strict with us because we have this collective good that we’re all working towards. And so it requires a sense of public collective consciousness and actually caring about one’s fellow human, which unfortunately, under the Trump regime in the United States, bringing it back home here, we’ve seen that idea of collective good be further eroded because this rugged individualism that libertarians and Republicans have pushed for so long and Trump tries to embody has really gone to an extreme.

So I think what these… To answer your question about what may come six months from now, I think the countries that have used authoritarian means to control the virus, that think they have a handle on things right now, are going to see it backfire. People are going to rise up. The virus will continue to spread, and it’s not going to work in the longterm.

Marc Steiner: I mean, if you think about the differences between these countries… I mean, if you look at some of the countries that you mentioned, they are social democracies. They’re still capitalist nations, but they’re social democracies. So when COVID hit, the way they were organized, they could organize themselves to kind of confront this pandemic. Places like New Zealand I’m thinking about and Finland and other places. Taiwan, they could do it that way. India is its own shambles. That’s what it is. And, but there the anti-Muslim fervor, the kind of nationalism that’s kind of gripped a large portion of India in some ways is almost more symbolically tied to what’s happening in the United States where the capitalists and equities just came surging forth in all this, in terms of watching what communities of color, the Native American communities, in the black communities, people dying at exorbitant rates and getting sick in exonerate rates compared to other communities.

I mean, so the contradictions have really been raised in all of this pandemic. And that’s what I mean when you look here and look around the world in how this might play out, and then you look at China, which has pushed a really stronger authoritarian model, but that may in fact put them in a stronger position as they battle with the United States who controls the world economically. I mean, this pandemic could really redefine the future.

Sonali Kolhatka…: I think one of the things that this has also pointed out is that the United States’ own version or vision of itself as an exceptional nation has been laid bare. I mean, the world is basically seeing the U.S. not just missing in action during this crisis, but embarrassing itself on the world stage. And if the U.S. was shown to be exceptional in anything during this crisis, it is of course in having the worst impact, the highest number of infections, the highest number of deaths, the greatest ineptness, the least amount of testing. And under president Trump, these forces that are demanding a reopening of businesses because the economy is supposed to be more important than people’s lives, I view them as acts of white supremacy and of white privilege, because we know that black people especially are disproportionately getting infected from, but especially dying from the disease. White Americans, even if they may catch the disease, are less likely to die from it.

And that’s of course because of preexisting health disparities. You pointed out Native Americans. We’re seeing the third largest in the Navajo nation today. And so those Americans, those libertarian, mostly white, and you can really say white supremacist protest because now many of them have been linked to white supremacist organizations, they are deliberately endangering communities of color through their acts of defiance. And sadly the Trump government and the U.S. government and local law enforcement will bend over backwards to appease them because that’s what we’ve always done. So a thousand white folks can walk in armed to the teeth in a state Capitol and have their wishes met and not face arrest. So these are things that I think we… And we’re probably seeing that… So you pointed out India, you know, the same kinds of… So the Modi government has used the crisis to further his Islamophobic agenda. Here in the U.S. it’s anti-immigrant, anti-people of color, the democratic voters that Trump is so afraid of.

Marc Steiner: So in conclude, I think that, as I said earlier, many of the contradictions that have come to the fore in this pandemic and… How much you think what we’re facing now is going to really change the nature of political struggle here and across… If you look at… I mean, Hungary’s Orban clearly they’re moving in a completely authoritarian and fictitious direction, chaos reigns in the United States in many ways, India is becoming very oppressive. I mean, I wonder what this sets up for us, do you think?

Sonali Kolhatka…: Well, I haven’t read too much about this, but just on Monday, I read a very interesting sounding new international, progressive response to the coronavirus crisis called Progressive International. It’s being headed by folks like Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, and folks like Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein and others. So this crisis definitely represents a huge challenge for the left. It’s hard to use the traditional means of organizing because we can’t very well organize a giant march to Washington D.C.

Marc Steiner: Right.

Sonali Kolhatka…: We also are not sure if we’re going to be able to even vote in this November’s election, even if you accept that voting is an act of organizing and activism, which of course it is one tool and ought to be seen as one tool in a multi-pronged approach. And it really is challenging the left, but there was just a month or two ago, a massive movement that had come together in the United States to demand progressive change under the umbrella of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

And I think that we’re going to see a reorienting of these movements. It’s a huge challenge for the left. I think we can meet it because we have already had experience organizing on the internet and digitally. There are ways to do it. I really hope that we’re going to change the nature of organizing and find a way to start to claw back some of these rights that we’ve lost in some of these… In the United States it’s not just rights lost, it’s just the most basic tenants of government that have been eroded and whittled away. And you know how we’re going to do it with somebody like Joe Biden at the forefront, as the only supposed alternative to Trump, I have no idea, but it’s a huge challenge. It might be the biggest challenge that the left faces, not just in the U.S, but worldwide.

Marc Steiner: So the COVID pandemic has, I think, changed the nature of the human political conversation on the planet. And it’s playing out different ways, depending on the country and how they’re approaching it. And all that’s going to define the political process. Well, you know, Solani Kolhatkar, it’s always, to me, a joy to talk to you. I mean, you bring a lot of good analysis to us and I appreciate it.

Sonali Kolhatka…: Thank you so much, Marc, for having me on.

Marc Steiner: Do what you do. And I look forward to many more conversations and we’ll be linking to your articles of course when we publish this interview. So thank you so much for being with us.

Sonali Kolhatka…: I appreciate it. Thank you, Marc.

Marc Steiner: Thank you very much. And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. Good to have you all with us, as usual. And please stay safe, stay healthy, stay in your house. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.