Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Countering Democratic Regression in Europe and Eurasia

Countering Democratic Regression in Europe and Eurasia

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

Conference Co-Sponsors

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)

Executive Summary

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.”