What’s next for U.S. democracy support in Central and Eastern Europe?
As U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” kicks off on 9 December, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe – high on the U.S. agenda following the end of the Cold War, but less so in recent years – wonder what the inaugural two-day virtual event means for them. Through our long-running cooperation with the German Marshall Fund, we are pleased to present the introduction to GMF’s package of 19 case studies where civic leaders and policy experts from across the region present the expectations in their respective countries of what the United States can do to support democracy better there and of the Summit for Democracy process itself. As the editors of the report note below, Central and Eastern Europe clearly hopes that the Summit for Democracy will open an era of democratic revival, but that will only come about with a shift in U.S. policy toward the region. The introduction is below and the case studies can be found on GMF’s website.
The administration of President Joe Biden has made the revival of democracy at home and globally a centerpiece of the United States’ domestic and foreign policy. This builds on a stronger-than-ever acknowledgement in Washington that democracy is in distress the world over. In the United States, democracy is challenged by deepening political polarization and social inequality, declining trust in government, broadening disenfranchisement and abuses of fundamental rights, and growing disinformation and political violence. Globally, older and newer democracies face democratic backsliding; political populism and extremism; social upheaval; attacks on political, media, and civic figures; spreading corruption; and meddling by authoritarian powers in politics, elections, media, and societies. As a result, the democratic promise to respect and benefit all citizens has been severely damaged, authoritarian narratives have become powerful, and the worldwide community of democracies has become decreasingly able to confront global challenges – from rising autocratic powers to conflicts and terrorism to migration and climate change. A concerted effort on their part to turn this tide back in favor of democracy is urgently needed.
In aiming to spark and spearhead this effort, the Biden administration has made a global Summit for Democracy its flagship initiative. On 9-10 December 2021, the summit will convene political leaders, civil society, and the private sector from the world’s democracies to discuss possible joint and individual action to reenergize democratic principles and practices. This initiative will zoom in on three vital areas: strengthening and defending democracy against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption, and respect for human rights. At the summit, the United States is expected to announce new initiatives for supporting free media, combatting corruption, democratic reforms, civic technology, and electoral integrity. Its democratic partners worldwide are expected to follow suite with commitments of their own. Following the summit, a “year of action” will ensue with continued consultation, coordination, and practical work by different combinations of governmental and non-governmental partners before a second summit at the end of 2022 reconvenes to assess the progress made.
While designed to be a global initiative, this U.S.-led effort at democratic revival will need to address varying mixes of challenges in different world regions. The United States will have to make strategic choices as to where bolstering democratic governance and open societies is most urgently needed and, at the same time, promises most substantial results. First, as the Biden administration acknowledges, a strong focus needs to be on the older democracies of Western Europe and North America. Their democratic functioning and standing has been badly bruised in the last years, and these have to be renewed if democracy is to revive elsewhere in the world. Recharging democracy in the old West is key if the global quest for democracy is to succeed.
The Importance of Central and Eastern Europe
Central and Eastern Europe is one region that is strategically important for a democratic revival the world over – and for the United States in general. Since the end of the Cold war, the eastern half of Europe has seen remarkable progress in democratic transformation and integration with European and transatlantic institutions. Over the last decade, however, the democratic momentum has weakened across the region and reversed in some cases. Central Europe, once the vanguard of reform toward liberal democracy, has seen substantial backsliding, with democratic institutions hollowed out, the rule of law undermined, and spaces for independent media and civil society shrinking. In the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, past and present conflicts combined with unclear prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration have long hampered full democratic transformation. Authoritarianism has crept back in, facilitated by disappointment with democratic reforms and promoted by external autocratic powers – primarily Russia but increasingly also China – that view the region as an arena of competition in which to challenge the democratic West.
Central Europe, once the vanguard of reform toward liberal democracy, has seen substantial backsliding, with democratic institutions hollowed out, the rule of law undermined, and spaces for independent media and civil society shrinking.
Reversing this regional dynamic must be a priority for the United States and for the global community of democracies for several reasons. First, if in Central and Eastern Europe, decades of democratic reform and achievement can be completely undone, this will send a fatal signal to democrats across the globe. The world’s democratically minded citizens and leaders will be discouraged, while skeptics and autocrats will feel vindicated. Second, if a democratic vacuum is allowed to open in Central and Eastern Europe, authoritarian powers will seize the opportunity to expand their influence. The region will once again become a hotbed of instability and stagnation, conflict and great-power competition that it has long been in its history. Third, democratic decline and authoritarian meddling, instability, and insecurity will not be limited to Central and Eastern Europe but will spill over westward. The European and transatlantic democratic community is already struggling with the fallout from the regional downward spiral, including waning political cohesion and worsening security. Stopping these trends in the region will require a full democratic renewal and a long-term push for integration for those of its countries that are still outside of Euro-Atlantic structures.
This importance of Central and Eastern Europe for the global revival of democracy is clearly reflected in the regional perspectives brought together in this paper. Civic leaders and policy experts from across the breadth of the region present the expectations in their respective countries of what the United States can do to support democracy better there and of the Summit for Democracy process. Their contributions, while rooted in the specific realities of each country, highlight overarching challenges facing the region. They also outline how the United States and other international partners can address these through diplomacy, engagement, and democracy assistance, as well as how the Summit for Democracy and the subsequent year of action can have an impact.
The Role of the United States
The contributors to this paper signal the urgent need for a shift in U.S. policy toward Central and Eastern Europe. Over the past decade and across the region, the United States has been perceived as increasingly disengaged, inattentive to rising challenges to democracy, and overly security-focused. Consequently, hopes are high that it will become more involved again in Europe’s eastern half, and that it will put in practice a greater emphasis on democracy as central to the region’s broader development and security. The United States partnerships with Central and Eastern Europe’s governments should thus be conditioned again on their full commitment to democracy and the rule of law, broad citizen participation, the unhindered involvement of civil society, and the safeguarding of diverse and independent media. Those perpetrating state capture and high-level corruption in the region must be shunned by Washington, while abuses of state power need to be sanctioned, elections safeguarded, and full (re)democratization made a clear prerequisite for U.S. partnership with individual governments.
Those perpetrating state capture and high-level corruption in the region must be shunned by Washington, while abuses of state power need to be sanctioned, elections safeguarded, and full (re)democratization made a clear prerequisite for U.S. partnership with individual governments.
In addition to this general setting of democracy at the heart of U.S regional policy, there are expectations across Central and Eastern Europe for actions in specific policy areas. These include assistance with reforms of justice and law-enforcement systems, and capacity building in security sectors to avert an increasing number and variety of threats. Washington should employ its economic muscle, through trade agreements and investment in strategic industries to incentivize democratic performers, and use its investigative and sanctions muscle to punish those that undermine democracy and security in the region. The management and eventual resolution of the many conflicts across the region, and the different necessary reconciliation processes, will equally require stronger U.S. engagement. Such renewed U.S. involvement in Central and Eastern Europe is to be accompanied by strong coordination with the European Union and NATO whose doors need to remain open to any country wishing and qualifying to accede to Euro-Atlantic structures.
The Need for U.S. and International Democracy Support
This adjustment of the United States policy toward Central and Eastern Europe needs to be accompanied by robust democracy assistance there – by itself and from its European partners too. The contributors to this paper point to a wide range of, often shared, issues that will require generous and long-term investment. The integrity of elections needs to be enhanced, through supporting election commissions, close monitoring of polls, parallel vote counts, and voter education. Democratic governance broadly needs to be bolstered, through independent watchdogs scrutinizing political decision-making and public budgets. Related to that is support for anti-corruption initiatives by civil society and investigations by independent media. The media field broadly, which is shrinking in much of the region, needs systematic development to assert independence and pluralism of coverage, counter state propaganda, and offset disinformation from domestic and international sources. Key civil society organizations and networks, covering a broadest possible range of citizen concerns, require stabilization and expansion. The participation of citizens-at-large in public affairs needs to be boosted, especially that of young people and women. Civic education, in formal and non-formal contexts, needs to be reestablished more fully. And continued efforts by civil society at large are necessary to adjust in the short and long term to the changing environment created by the coronavirus pandemic.
While these are all areas that are of equal importance across Central and Eastern Europe, some issues apply variously to individual countries of the region. In the many conflict and post-conflict zones of the region, civic efforts at crisis management, humanitarian support, and reconciliation remain an urgent necessity. The fallout from ever-greater repression by authoritarian regimes against civil society, independent media, and ordinary citizens requires large-scale assistance, including through relocation and rehabilitation programs for victimized individuals and groups. Economic opportunities for citizens, marginalized groups and regions, startups and small business need support. The systematic development of the next generation of political and civic leadership is necessary. Across all these areas, the potential of digital technologies needs to be tapped and cyber security needs to be boosted.
Most restrictive environments, which are expanding in Central and Eastern Europe, require highly discrete and flexible funding mechanisms, security measures for organizations and individuals, and emergency support during repressive phases.
In this context, some of the underlying assumptions about democracy assistance need to be reconsidered by the United States and its European partners if this is to be successful. More than has been the case to date, they need to acknowledge that sustainable democracy results from long-term processes of social and political changes that need to be continuously and comprehensively nurtured. Assistance needs to cast its net across the broadest possible range of democratic actors in all segments of society.
Within such an encompassing and continuous approach, some instruments are particularly important. One is rapid-response mechanisms to react to abrupt changes and match swift and short-term dynamics in politics, society, and security. Another is core funding to key independent media and investigative outlets, civil society structures, and human rights and humanitarian organizations. Most restrictive environments, which are expanding in Central and Eastern Europe, require highly discrete and flexible funding mechanisms, security measures for organizations and individuals, and emergency support during repressive phases. Diaspora-based civil society and independent media, as well as people-to-people contacts and conduits need systematic development when it comes to those countries of the region where authoritarian regimes make every effort to eradicate independent civil society and media. Intra-regional networking and peer exchanges of experiences by democratic actors from Central and Eastern must be expanded, while coordination and concentration among U.S. and European, public and private donors needs to be strengthened. Last but not least, the international democratic community should assert and advocate clearly, at home and abroad, the right and obligation to assist democratic actors inside any country of Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed globally.
The Summit for Democracy – and After
As per the authors of this paper, the Summit for Democracy as a global initiative is overwhelmingly welcomed in Central and Eastern Europe. At a minimum, it provides an international platform to raise the many issues that hamper the region’s development, democracy, and security. Among those highlighted are festering conflicts in Eastern Europe and unresolved disputes in the Western Balkans, malign influences by Russia, pervasive corruption, weakness of state institutions and political processes, and limitations – to differing degrees – to public and independent media, the rule of law, and civil society. In the face of these challenges, the Summit for Democracy is expected to promote stronger government adherence to international standards, empower democratic leaders from the region, and involve local civil society and media. This hope is explicitly shared by the democratic publics of the countries, including in the region – Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, and Russia, whose non-democratic governments have not been invited to the summit. When it comes to these countries – and also ones that, like Poland and Serbia, might also not have been invited due to their deteriorating situation – the summit process from this December till the end of 2022 offer an opportunity for domestic civil society and international partners to keep a brighter spotlight on their governments’ behavior.
Expectations in Central and Eastern Europe go further, however. Hopes across the region are that the Summit for Democracy will lead to a stronger multilateral effort to counter illiberal and authoritarian tendencies. It is hoped the summit will see all participating governments set clear commitments for improving democracy at home but also supporting it abroad, to be followed by communicating these clearly to the publics in individual countries, providing for close monitoring of national performance, and setting foreign policy and conditioning international aid accordingly. A special initiative to address corruption and kleptocracy in Central and Eastern Europe would be very welcome, starting with a goal-oriented dialogue between the region as the origin of illicit financial flows and Western countries as their destination. Further specific proposals from the region include the drafting of national programs for democratic consolidation, government pledges to support civil society, and coordinating mechanisms to counter the malicious involvement of Russia and other authoritarian powers. In so doing, the Summit for Democracy can link with and build upon existing formats for regional cooperation, at the level of governments and non-state actors.
Renewed attention and aid from the United States, however, will only succeed if its partners in the region and in the West make matching efforts.
Central and Eastern Europe clearly hopes that the Summit for Democracy will open an era of democratic revival. Along with this, there is a strong desire across the region to see the United States fully reengage with this part of the world in foreign policy, democracy assistance, and security support alike. Renewed attention and aid from the United States, however, will only succeed if its partners in the region and in the West make matching efforts. Across Central and Eastern Europe, majorities of citizens remain hopeful and engaged to see democracy in their countries succeed. Further west, the European Union has also come to signal a stronger interest and readiness to help democracy among its vulnerable members and neighbors. This bodes well for the prospects of the tide once again turning in favor of democracy, in Central and Eastern Europe and the world over.
Nicolas Bouchet is a visiting fellow based in Berlin. From 2014 until 2016, Nick was a TAPIR research fellow with the GMF Europe Program, based in GMF’s Berlin office and then in the Washington office. Joerg Forbrig is a senior fellow and director for Central and Eastern Europe. This article was originally published on the GMF website. Reprinted with permission.