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Countering Democratic Regression in Europe and Eurasia
Findings from an October 16, 2009 conference at Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Organizers: Adrian A. Basora and Mitchell A. Orenstein
Foreign Policy Research Institute
S. Richard Hirsch Chair of European Studies (JHU SAIS)
German Marshall Fund of the United States
Center for Transatlantic Relations (JHU SAIS)
George Washington University (IERES)
Contrary to the early euphoria and very real progress towards democratization during the 1990’s in most of postcommunist Europe and Eurasia, democracy is now on the defensive throughout much of the region. The geographic area comprising the twenty-nine countries that emerged from Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and the formerly communist Balkan countries is significantly less democratic, less secure, and less aligned with the West than it was at the end of the 1990s or at the start of the 2000s.
This regression should be of serious concern to both the United States (US) and to the twenty-seven European Union (EU) member states. These anti-democratic trends can and should be reversed, drawing upon the lessons of the last twenty years of postcommunist transition experience. To restore lost democratic momentum, however, Washington and its allies must give higher priority to the postcommunist countries, both in terms of high-level attention and in the quantity and quality of resources devoted to supporting democracy in the region. High-level US visits to the post-communist countries by President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton around the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall indicated a policy opening and good will, but need to be followed up by a concerted long-term policy response.
Why does the postcommunist region merit a higher priority – despite the admittedly compelling demands posed by crises in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict? First, for its own security, the US cannot afford to ignore democratic backsliding in key parts of Europe. Outbursts of European instability over the past century have repeatedly proven their potential to draw the United States into armed conflict or other very costly forms of engagement. European democracy and unity are the best assurance against such negative consequences. Secondly, the US needs a strong, stable, united and friendly Europe as a partner in managing the extraordinary global challenges that face both continents – including the ideological warfare currently being waged against Western values. Conversely, deterioration of democracy in Eastern Europe could severely damage Europe’s stability, its alignment with the US and its ability to act as an effective partner on the global stage.
It would therefore be a serious mistake to ignore the recent democratic regression in Russia and several other former Soviet republics. Nor the should the stagnation and even backsliding since 2005 in countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia be dismissed as issues of lower-order strategic import. Their fate is a core issue facing European security, stability and unity today – and the US has a strong interest in the outcome.
Building on past successes, the US should renew its commitment and strengthen its support of democracy throughout the post-communist space. This is particularly crucial, however, in the fragile “in-between” countries that are currently the object of a tug-of-war between Russia on the one hand, and the US and EU on the other. To be effective in supporting postcommunist democratization, Washington and Brussels must work together more closely and devote substantially increased attention and resources to the region. Washington must also revamp its pro-democracy rhetoric and some of its programmatic and tactical approaches. This renewed “Postcommunist Democracy Phase II” effort should be guided by the following five changes of strategy:
Increase democracy support levels with a long-term perspective
The US has tended to view democratization as a short-term process that starts with a break-through to free and fair elections and ends when such elections are repeated and lead to alternation of governments. Yet twenty years of postcommunist experience shows that this perspective is short-sighted and that democratization requires a long-term approach.
Change the rhetoric of US support for democracy Support for democracy should focus on promoting universal values, such as the rule of law, pluralism, responsive government, citizen participation, free media, robust civil society, truly fair electoral competition, and equal opportunity. We must avoid the appearance of advocating regime change or adoption of a US-based model of governance.
Partner more closely with the European Union in support of democracy US support for democratization has been most effective when conducted in tandem with the European democracies. When the US and the EU are visibly working together on the same side, the lure and the pressure are difficult to resist.
Support institutions and processes, not leaders Perhaps the greatest mistake of US democracy assistance in the postcommunist region after 1989 has been to support individual “democrats” rather than the processes and institutions that are essential to building democracy over the long run. The US needs to renew and refocus its democracy assistance in areas such as rule of law, independent media, government accountability, effective regulation, social welfare, party financing, anti-corruption and other measures to build stable institutions over the long term that do not rely on any individual leader.
Redesign assistance programs in collaboration with local activists
After twenty years of postcommunist democratization, several Central European countries have developed a solid core of democracy activists and civil society groups with whom we can work to help spread democratization further to the East. Assistance programs should be redesigned in close consultation with local civic leaders, not imposed according to US agendas or regional “templates.”
Countering Democratic Regression in Europe and Eurasia
This report is based on the findings of an October 16, 2009 conference in Washington, D.C. on “Countering Democratic Regression in a Newly Divided Europe/Eurasia.” The conference was held at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and co-organized by the FPRI Project on Democratic Transitions and the S. Richard Hirsch Chair in European Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. It was also sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and the George Washington University Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. A conference program is attached; it and the background papers by conference panelists are available on the conference website.
The conclusions and policy recommendations outlined below reflect the two principal co-organizers’ view of the main analytical themes and policy recommendations that emerged from the conference. An initial draft report was circulated for comment to all conference speakers and several other active participants. This final version has been enriched by their comments, and the authors believe that it reflects the views of a solid majority of the conference participants. Nevertheless, not all participants agreed, and this report does not purport to be a consensus document. The authors thus take full responsibility for the judgments and policy recommendations contained herein.
Contrary to the widespread perception by the US public and on Capitol Hill that “Europe is fixed,” the cumulative loss of momentum towards democracy in the postcommunist region has now become a matter of serous concern. It is not true that the formerly communist area no longer requires the high priority and sustained attention that they received in 1990’s. While that decade saw notable successes with democratization and economic reform in Central Europe and the Baltics, even many of these early democratic front-runners are now struggling politically and economically.
Since 2005, there has been stagnation and even slight regression in several of the ten emerging Central European democracies. The problem is much more serious, however, in “hybrid regime” countries like Ukraine and Georgia that are still hovering “in between” democracy and authoritarianism. And, more ominously, a large authoritarian camp has formed under the guise of “sovereign democracy.” Moscow has begun working actively to undercut true democratic governance in the region; and China is encouraging the Central Asian republics in a similar direction.
Today, new strains and fault lines increasingly divide the European/Eurasian landmass as a result of strong competition between Russia on the one hand and the European Union, NATO and the US on the other. The Russia/Ukraine gas pipeline disputes of 2006 through 2009, and the short but destabilizing Russia/Georgia war of August 2008, provide evidence of this region’s fragility and its potential to generate serious confrontations that will inevitably involve the US. The recent “Open Letter to the Obama Administration” from former Presidents Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and other prominent leaders of the 1990’s democratic transitions further underlines the insecurities and uncertainties felt throughout much of the post-communist region.
Mission Not Accomplished
During the 1990’s, the early stages of postcommunist transition seemed to bear out the hope that “a Europe whole and free” would emerge from the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most of the 29 states that resulted from the collapse of European communism did indeed initially launch market reforms and make some moves towards greater political pluralism. However, it has become increasingly clear since 2005 that many of these transition efforts have now either stagnated or regressed. Some are currently on sharply divergent paths that lead away from democracy or alignment with American or Western European interests and values.
Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, the accession to EU membership of ten postcommunist nations stands in sharp contrast to the authoritarian consolidation of the past few years in Russia, Belarus and Central Asia.
Some scholars and policy analysts have concluded that the postcommunist transitions are over, with the end-point being democracy for some, re-centralized dictatorships for others, and varying degrees of competitive authoritarianism for the remaining countries “in between.” The authors of this report disagree with this analysis. Instead, we are convinced that the whole story has not been written, and that the outcome will depend critically upon the actions of the United States and its allies over the coming decade and beyond.
In analyzing both the current situation and the disturbing recent trends in the postcommunist region, it is useful to divide these countries into three rough groupings:
The emerging democracies: essentially the ten new EU member states, whose Freedom House democracy scores average 2.12 on a scale of 1 to 7 (with Romania occupying the outer edge at 3.36);
The regressive autocracies: Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan plus the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, with Freedom House scores averaging over 6.00. Notably, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan – the most oil-rich Eurasian nations – have regressed on every democracy measure since 1999.
The mixed regimes: these countries “in between” include Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Bosnia and several other Balkan countries with Freedom House scores ranging from 3.64 to 5.21. A diverse group, we combine them here based on the continuing uncertainty and fragility of their political trajectories.
Market reforms in the postcommunist countries also show three tiers of implementation and a roughly similar regional pattern, according to transition scores produced by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). As the chart below indicates, the former Soviet autocracies ended the period with the lowest scores, averaging 2.5 (with 4.3 being the highest score for market reform), while the new EU members appear to have reached a plateau at about 3.6. The mixed regimes fall squarely in between with an average of 2.85.
The state of transition differs for each of these three groups of states. Ominously, however, the recently released Freedom House report Nations in Transit2009 downgraded 18 of the 29 postcommunist countries. Threats to democratic development haunt even the relatively successful EU-10 countries; populism, illiberal politics, electoral stalemate and public disillusionment are all on the rise. According to the EBRD’s Life in Transition survey in 2006, prior to the current economic crisis, majorities in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland believed that the political situation had worsened compared to 1989. These nascent democracies will require continued nurturing and encouragement to prevent backsliding and political crisis.
On the other end of the spectrum are the eight increasingly autocratic regimes that have emerged in the former Soviet republics mentioned above. After an initial burst of change in some of these countries during the 1990’s, most have regressed steadily for the past decade. Although it is possible that in the longer term autocracy may not be as inevitable as their recent trajectories suggest, they show little promise in the near term. As of 2009, Freedom House considers all eight countries to be “consolidated authoritarian regimes.”
In between these two groupings are the “mixed” or “hybrid” regimes. It is here that the stakes are currently the greatest and fragile democratic forces are in greatest need of support. The Freedom House downgraded Bosnia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in 2009, and none of these countries have forseeable prospects of EU membership, previously a powerful force for democratization in the region.
The mixed regime countries (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and some of the Balkan countries) are teetering “on the edge,” and marginal changes in political development could substantially affect the future trajectory of these countries. Although we know that authoritarian regimes are much more likely to produce another authoritarian regime rather than a democratic break-through, mixed regimes tend to be less predictable, and could move either towards or away from democracy. At this critical moment, US support or its absence might thus exert considerable influence on political outcomes.
A Renewed Commitment to Democracy in Europe
Starting with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO, the United States has made massive investments in support of democracy and stability in Europe. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the US followed up these investments for over a decade with sizeable efforts to help foster democracy in the postcommunist countries. The US helped greatly in laying the groundwork for the peaceful addition of ten new emerging democracies from Eastern Europe and the Baltics into NATO and the EU in 2004 and 2007, thus helping to create an expanded zone of democracy and stability in Europe.
Despite a record of considerable results during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a very substantial amount of work still remains to be done. Unfortunately, US democracy assistance to postcommunist Europe peaked in 2002 at $1.6 billion and has since plummeted to the $800 million range, as Washington has diverted resources to the Middle East and elsewhere. This represents well over a 50% decrease, even before adjusting for inflation and the decline of the U.S. dollar. In some countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania, US democratization assistance was reduced to zero in 2007 (see data at https://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/c25138.htm).
Although other crises across the globe do indeed require larger amounts of democracy assistance, generating these resources at the expense of postcommunist Europe and Eurasia has proven shortsighted. Our initial relatively modest investments during the 1990-2002 period helped to build successful market economies, free media, more responsive government, an active civil society and other institutions that have transformed these countries into viable democracies.
Surely, given the stakes in the “hybrid” countries and some of the other less consolidated transitional countries, it would make sense to return to our earlier levels of assistance – an annual level of $1.6 billion. Investing in a free and secure Europe carries financial benefits, helps avert future wars, and enables the U.S. to deal with numerous global issues with the benefit of a stronger European alliance, despite, and partly because of the US’s own economic crisis.
In addition to increasing funding, the US should also take a qualitatively new approach towards democratization in Europe and Eurasia. This includes sustaining the high-level attention to the region began to take place during the first year of the Obama administration. As additional resources are devoted to these countries, it is important to use them in ways that take account of the significant insights gained during the past twenty years of postcommunist transition experience. “Postcommunist Democratization Phase II” needs to incorporate the lessons of “Phase I.”
Implementing Lessons Learned
Assuming a commitment to renewed support for democratization in Europe, numerous lessons have emerged from the successes and failures of twenty years of postcommunism that should be incorporated in a renewed and expanded approach. Here are some illustrative examples of the new policy direction that we recommend:
Increase democracy support levels with a long-term perspective.
The US has tended to view democratization as a short-term process that starts with a break-through to free and fair elections and ends when such elections are repeated and lead to alternation of governments. Yet twenty years of postcommunist experience shows that this perspective is highly short-sighted.
By the late 1990s, when most of the former Warsaw Pact countries had held repeated free elections and passed basic laws embodying democratic and market-based principles, US policy makers began to conclude that the battle for democracy was being won in the entire postcommunist region. By the start of the 2000’s, the US began to phase out much of its democracy assistance in the early reform countries. After the 9/11/01 attacks and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, democracy assistance was sharply scaled back in many postcommunist countries so that these resources could be shifted to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Yet in recent years, we have learned that democracy faces significant challenges even in the relatively successful Central European and Baltic nations. These emerging democracies merit our continued support not only as part of an effort to counter negative trends in the region such increased corruption, mafia-style crime and trafficking, and the rise of populist right parties, but also as a means of strengthening their “democratic diffusion” effect upon nearby countries.
Continuing support for democratization is needed even more urgently – and on a larger scale – in “hybrid” transitional countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia. The US and its European allies must avoid having defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in these countries that experienced promising initial breakthroughs, but have since bogged down or regressed. Although the US has continued to provide assistance to the “second-wave” transitional countries, including those that experienced “color revolutions” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), these efforts were not as large, relative to the challenges, as the programs of the 1990’s. Democratic backsliding in countries like Georgia and Kyrgyzstan has given clear notice that successful democratization will require a larger and longer-term effort.
Furthermore, the groundwork should be laid for continuing the effort for at least another decade or two – which is the minimum timeframe for the more difficult cases to show serious promise of effective and sustained democratic governance. Although the largest share of this support should go to the “in-between” countries currently struggling with very weak democratic institutions, we should also be prepared to respond if there are unexpected democratic breakthroughs – for example in Armenia or Belarus – in countries that currently seem unpromising.
A long-term commitment to democracy support is vital to consolidating the successes that US policy has had in this region. While some argue that this is unrealistic given the challenges facing the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, in fact these challenges make it all the more important for democracy to demonstrate its staying-power in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia. Since democracy cannot be won in a day, a program of long-term support is needed. Building upon the strong foundations laid in the 1989-2004 period, the US, working closely with Europe, should be able to generate significant new successes on a par with those of the first wave of postcommunist democratization.
Change the rhetoric of US support for democracy
The “democracy promotion” rhetoric that the US has been using in recent years has become widely discredited. American support for democracy must no longer be seen as a guise for forced regime change in countries out of favor with Washington. Nor should they be seen as the imposition of a model designed in the US. Thus, both the US government and American non-governmental organizations that work in the region need to change the way they communicate the intrinsic appeal of democracy’s underlying values.
US support for democracy should be clearly demand-driven, and it should be about promoting the practice of universal values, such as the rule of law, pluralism, responsive government, citizen participation, free media, robust civil society, truly fair electoral competition, and equal opportunity. By going back to basics and promoting such universal aspirations as accountable government, the US will gain more support for its democracy support projects worldwide.
The US also needs to reconsider its strategies for promoting these values. The US should, for instance, make better use of international forums and should leverage the treaty commitments of transgressors, much as was done in the 1970’s and 1980’s via “the Helsinki Process.” It is important to distinguish the genuine freedoms that we support from authoritarian models clothed in democratic rhetoric such as Moscow’s “sovereign democracy” or China’s autocratic fast-growth model. Support for democracy should not be framed as anti-Russian, nor as a contest for regional spheres of influence. It should instead be framed in terms of basic human rights and the quality of life aspirations of the people themselves.
Partner more closely with the European Union in support of democracy US support for democratization has been most effective when conducted in close tandem with US allies, in particular the countries of the European Union. When the US and the EU are consistently on the same side, the lure is difficult to resist. EU expansion has been one of the most effective democracy promotion mechanisms in Eastern Europe, the Baltic Republics and the Balkans. Pre-accession conditionality for EU membership, when firmly applied to countries like Slovakia and Croatia, has reinforced democratic institutions and practices at times when they were challenged by illiberal leaders.
After accession, however, the European Union loses much of its ability to affect governance practices in its new member states. This has proved to be a problem in fighting high-level government corruption and mafia-style criminality in Bulgaria and Romania in recent years. While in extreme cases, the EU can use its “nuclear option” and shut off structural funds to an individual country, it does not have many other tools to advance democratic governance, in part because of the lack of acquis communautaire in key areas such as anti-corruption efforts and protection of minority rights. The EU does, however, retain significant leverage over candidates for membership. If used properly, this provides a major opportunity for positive influence on the remaining transitions in the small Western Balkan countries.
European Union conditionality is weaker in the former Soviet republics. Thanks to the “expansion fatigue” that has characterized Brussels since the 2005 constitutional referenda, countries like Ukraine have no clear prospect of EU membership, rendering the prospects of accession too distant to be a major driving force.
Here is where complementary support from the US is most crucial. One initiative would be for the US to support, and to participate as an external partner in, the EU’s Eastern Partnership Proposal (EPP). The EPP is a joint Polish-Swedish initiative that so far has limited momentum. It is designed to channel resources and expertise to countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – countries that have no current prospect of EU membership, but could be given the prospect of much closer affiliation with the EU over the long term. Just as was the case with the successful “Group of 24” effort in the 1990’s to mobilize major resources in support of the early postcommunist transitions, US involvement could make an important difference in the success of this important initiative.
The OSCE is another mechanism that could become far more effective in supporting democratic values and institutions if there were closer US-EU strategic collaboration. After the Helsinki Agreements of 1975, the OSCE process helped to promote human rights, educational exchanges and other openings that helped to lay the groundwork for military détente and for greater pluralism in the then-communist countries. With stronger US-European coordination and leadership, it might be possible to counter Moscow’s increasingly successful recent efforts to neuter the OSCE. The Helsinki principles might thus once again become a valuable tool in nurturing the underpinnings of democracy in the postcommunist countries.
Support institutions and processes, not leaders Perhaps the greatest mistake of US democracy assistance in the postcommunist region after 1989 has been to support individual “democrats” rather than to stress those processes and institutions that are essential to building democracy over the long run. In the 1990s, the US put enormous faith in Boris Yeltsin to bring democracy to Russia. After the color revolutions of 2003 and 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko became poster boys for democratic change in these former Soviet republics. But democracy is not about one leader, it is about investing in processes and institutions independently from individual leaders. Furthermore, insisting on the democratic credentials of particular leaders can harm the credibility of US democracy assistance, if and when they fail to advance democratic agendas.
Long-term democracy support thus needs to focus on rule of law, independent media, government accountability, effective regulation, social welfare, party financing, anti-corruption measures and other practices and institutions that require dozens of years to nurture and perfect. These are some of the areas where US resources and political effort need to be focused, if the postcommunist countries are to achieve more accountable governance over the long term.
This implies that the US needs to take a broader view of democracy. It is not just a system of elections, but a system of accountable government that is multi-faceted in its implications, a government accountable to the people in more ways and at more times that in elections every four or five years. The symbol of democracy should not be the display of purple thumbs, celebrating a first election, but rather the smooth functioning of administrative offices of the state in the interest of the population. In many countries, democratic accountability is closely linked to economic and social development, for instance in the expansion of health facilities in areas of shortage or the development of institutions to include minorities in political and social life. These features of societal democracy should be more central to US concerns, as they are essential to how populations view the success or failure of democratic institutions.
Redesign assistance programs in collaboration with local activists
US assistance in these areas can best be achieved in partnership with authentic local civic and other non-governmental organizations. It must be demand-driven, and the local partners need to have genuine indigenous roots. Such cooperation has been an important facet of democratic breakthroughs in the postcommunist Europe and Eurasia since 1989. It now needs to be part of a sustained effort to improve, enhance, and consolidate democracy for the long term. Postcommunist Democratization Phase II requires redesigning many programs and approaches in conjunction with local civil society leaders and organizations.
In addition to involvement in project redesign, the US can and should partner with Central and East European civil society leaders to spread democratization further East. The new “EU-10” countries have deep expertise in postcommunist democratization; they have been successful in the past, and they are largely free from the stigma of US democracy promotion. They may be more effective than traditional US agencies, contractors, and non-governmental organizations in the current ideological climate, particularly in countries where anti-American sentiment is prevalent.
Many analysts give partial credit for the relatively successful breakthroughs of Central Europe and the Baltics to the demonstration effect of well-functioning democracies and market economies immediately to their West during the later years of the Cold War. A similar demonstration effect can be mobilized to support democratization in the mixed regime countries of Europe and Eurasia.
Most Central and Eastern European countries have made great advances towards democracy since 1989. Despite recent set-backs and lingering faults, some of these nations are now among the better-performing democracies in the world. Their evolving institutions and citizen commitments to the values underlying democracy give considerable promise for the long term. Even in less institutionalized and less democratic parts of the former communist region, there are still solid reasons for hope that their earlier achievements can be parlayed into truly representative and accountable government. There are great opportunities to restore democratic momentum and to build upon the impressive progress of the 1990’s. To do this, however, the US needs to recommit to this vital region and work harder to advance democracy, particularly in those in-between countries that have not yet fully institutionalized democracy or reverted to hard authoritarian regimes.
The reasons for renewing this commitment are clear. Twenty years after the revolutions of 1989, we still do not have “a Europe whole and free.” Only with such a Europe – a Europe vibrant, democratic, secure and stable – can the United States and the other established democracies succeed in dealing with the many daunting challenges ahead. We now know that successful postcommunist transitions take not years but decades. Thus some of these countries will require greater time and effort to acquire well-functioning democratic institutions. With an updated and re-invigorated strategy, and in close cooperation with our European partners, we can and should persist in fostering democracy in this vital region of the world.
If we fail in postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe, despite all the favorable circumstances and the democratic momentum in which the West invested so heavily in the 1990’s, then how can we succeed elsewhere?
Appendix: Conference Agenda with links to Panelist Bios and Background Papers
Countering Democratic Regression in a Newly Divided Europe and Eurasia
October 16, 2009 Conference at Johns Hopkins University SAIS
1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.
Co-Sponsored by: S. Richard Hirsch Chair in European Studies, JHU/SAIS Foreign Policy Research Institute German Marshall Fund of the United States George Washington University Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS
 Freedom House, in its annual publication, Nations in Transit, evaluates the progress in democratization for 29 countries and administrative units in the former communist region using a seven point scale where 1.00 embodies the best practices of liberal democracy and 7.00 indicates a totally closed, autocratic society.
 Specifically we include here Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Kosovo. Moldova and Kosovo are brought up from FH’s “semi-consolidated authoritarian category” as their proximity to the EU and other emerging democracies may enhance their democratization prospects and their impact on the European region.