No more low-hanging fruit

Since 1989 liberal reformers have helped bring 10 Eastern bloc countries into the EU. Now comes the hard part.

This year found the Euro-Atlantic community not
only busy with pressing economic and political issues but also commemorating
several important milestones – the 70th anniversary of the start of World War
II, the 60th anniversary of NATO’s founding, the 20th anniversary of the fall
of the Berlin Wall. This last opened space for unprecedented changes in the
former Soviet bloc.

Two decades on, we have entered a complicated period of economic crisis,
security fears, and raised expectations connected with changes in the White
House and European institutions. There is a natural impulse to look back,
analyze the state of affairs, and think about new strategies.

Post-communist Europe has been a laboratory
for methods to promote democracy, and Western assistance has contributed
to the region’s remarkable socio-political transformation. But 2009 is not
1989, and today the issue requires serious rethinking.


In the aftermath of the annus
mirabilis of 1989
, “going back to Europe”
was a key goal for the oppressed populations of numerous countries. Western
governments, political parties, educational and research institutions,
churches, media, grant-making foundations, nongovernmental and voluntary
organizations, and individuals from all walks of life responded with aid and
expertise. New strategies for nurturing democracy were devised.

This first post-Cold War “golden decade” was characterized by spontaneity,
improvisation, enthusiasm, and a deep belief in the European project. The
Euro-Atlantic family shared a common vision of an ever-larger union built on
democratic values, social justice, and economic prosperity. American and
European policy and donor communities generally acted in harmony; their
assistance efforts resonated with local populations and were not challenged by
serious political, ideological, or technical difficulties. By 1996 10 of these
states had signed EU association agreements, which became a driving force for
modernization and profound reforms.

Few then doubted the transformational power of the EU. The road to democracy
and the free market was bumpier than many expected, but democracy assistance,
realized through newborn political and non-state actors, was viewed as a fully
legitimate part of the process. When national democratic deficits emerged – in Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar, for example – the EU and the United States
used conditionality, diplomatic pressure, and direct assistance to democratic
forces to overcome them.

For the Western Balkans and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the
post-1989 transition became associated with serious hardship. Quality of life
deteriorated in these sub-regions, and ethnically motivated civil wars pushed some states out of
the integration mainstream. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, economically and
politically weak, was consumed with its own affairs. Western actors became
mired in more complicated tasks – overcoming a more deeply rooted communist
legacy, dealing with wars and humanitarian emergencies.

The events of 1999 illustrated the dichotomy. In March of that year, the Czech Republic, Hungary,
and Poland joined NATO, an event Vaclav Havel said marked “the real
and definitive end” of divided Europe. That
same month, NATO intervened to address the Kosovo catastrophe created by
Slobodan Milosevic.

The following year, the brave actions of Serbia’s civil society and
democratic opposition led to Milosevic’s peaceful ouster. It seemed a powerful
signal that people’s desire to build open societies and join the European
family was greater than the power of skilled nationalist leaders, and that
political will and well-designed Western assistance could contribute to change
even in very complicated situations.


The entry of the “CEE 10” ex-communist states into the EU in 2004 and 2006 and
the color revolutions in Georgia
and Ukraine
in 2003 and 2004 represented triumphs of democracy assistance. But the past
decade also brought unforeseen political, security, and economic complications
that weakened the clarity and self-confidence of those promoting liberal
democracy and free markets, fueling hesitation and growing opposition to
further integration.

Emanating from the shock waves of the 11 September attacks, the Bush
administration’s “war on terror” and Iraq invasion drove a deep wedge into the
Euro-Atlantic alliance and undermined the United States’ credibility as the
chief player in the field of democracy promotion. Meanwhile, an energized Russia
reasserted itself, and the EU entered a period of enlargement fatigue and
prolonged argument over internal reform.

All this, and the global economic crisis that capped the decade, sapped the
momentum of integration as it was reaching the Western Balkans and the “Eastern neighborhood” (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia,
Armenia, and Azerbaijan), terrain made far thornier by weak democratic
institutions, entrenched corruption, organized crime, and widespread poverty.

In the early years of this decade, the democracy-assistance community was still
confident. “Democracy export” from Central European and Baltic states to the
more complex Balkans and Eastern Europe was
built into Western strategies. Support to politically active civic
groups and various NGOs, pro-democratic and pro-European politicians, and
independent media, and a focus on ensuring free and fair elections led to
successes like that in Serbia. But the conditions for democracy promotion
changed dramatically in the second half of the decade, particularly in the
post-Soviet countries.

EU hesitancy and drift soured many in these countries on integration, while Russia’s
economic might and bolder rhetoric encouraged states on its borders to look
east rather than west for support. The sudden successes of the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia
and Ukraine
prompted authoritarian leaders in neighboring states to crack down on NGOs,
foreign organizations, and domestic media and political opposition. A
perceptible backlash against the liberal-democratic model began to grow,
especially as Georgia’s and Ukraine’s
leaders lost their reformist sheen. The discussion now is less about democracy and
human rights than about energy, security, and financial stability.


Today, it is clear that Western democracy assistance is in decline and will be
seriously challenged in the years to come. The European project and its vision
are associated with questions, not answers. The many studies and conferences on
democracy assistance in the last two years have tended to dwell on weaknesses
rather than seek strategies that might bring results. Just as we did 20 years
ago, we are facing an unfamiliar situation.

Until the trans-Atlantic community overcomes its own crises, of course, it can
hardly focus on matching past successes in promoting democracy. Beyond that,
the Obama administration, the new EU leadership, and the member states will
face a test – whether, in spite of our difficulties, we will stay open and
continue to share our values and resources with our neighbors.

I believe the past 20 years provide several lessons worth considering as we
think about the challenges ahead.

First, there must be symmetry in understanding and will between aid providers
and recipient countries. Democracy assistance works best when it responds to
the needs of local reformers and when all parties are open and aware about why
the aid is coming and what it is for.

Too often, particularly in countries where full membership in European
institutions is seen as far off, if not impossible, democracy assistance is
viewed as an abstract exercise. Where the power of conditionality is missing,
special effort must be paid to developing arguments and methodologies that
resonate locally. Approaches that worked in the CEE 10 – support to
civil-society organizations, a focus on free elections – can’t be automatically
replicated or exported.

In countries like Belarus (whose regime refuses foreign governments’ and
private groups’ democracy-promotion programs) and Azerbaijan (where an authoritarian government has provided
reasonable security and economic growth), there are limits to how much can be
done with traditional, broadly based Euro-Atlantic assistance. The answer might
lie more with the kind of help offered to dissidents and human-rights activists
prevalent before 1989.

Second, style matters. Democracy assistance touches sensitive political and
psychological nerves. Overlooking public sentiment and specifically national
concerns, or relying on excessive criticism and pressure, can jeopardize

Many of the states that emerged from the fall of communism hardly existed as
such before. Nation-building is often a higher priority than
democracy-building, and this plays into the hands of skillful populists. When
we want to support pro-democratic forces in transitional countries, we need to
keep in mind that they – not donor agencies or their governments – are the
agents of change, best positioned to develop strategies of change. They are
often risking their future, even their lives, in the struggle for dignity and
justice at home.

The timetable for this process differs in each country. An impatient or
officious donor, policymaker, or “democracy officer” can cause serious problems
and erode people’s belief that democracy assistance is genuine.

I fear that many American and European institutions that were created to
promote democracy and freedom, and which did so quite well in the last two
decades, will have serious legitimacy and operational problems in the coming
years. Especially those that don’t take into account the fundamental changes in
the international arena, don’t take seriously the image problem democracy
assistance faces in some places, and are not ready to change their modus

Third, sincerity matters, in deed as well as word. Geographic proximity, shared
history, and external conditions made it relatively easy to anchor the CEE 10
in the West. It was not hard to convince policymakers and the public in those
countries that the United
States and the EU genuinely wished to bring
them into a community of shared values.

The situation today is not so black and white, and U.S. and EU interests are not
always so easy to decode. Economic and security issues, energy resources, and
other strategic interests connected with these countries present moral
dilemmas, and we have to compromise more than before.

On one hand, we are giving support to pro-democratic forces, modern
administration, protection of human rights, independent media, and good
governance. On the other hand, people in these countries, including democracy
activists, see how well-paid Western experts or media moguls help autocratic
politicians improve their image and win elections; how Eastern oligarchs
burnish their names funding Western NGOs; how some Western policymakers close
their eyes to authoritarianism if practiced in energy-rich states. In this
context, the trans-Atlantic community needs to rethink how it deals with the
democratic deficits in many of these countries.

Finally, democracy assistance and democracy-building are human endeavors,
difficult to communicate in analytical language. Luckily, there are many people
from both East and West who had the privilege and good fortune to witness
miracles and experience how an unstoppable human spirit seeking truth,
equality, and justice can overcome fear, apathy, and mistrust.

Due in large part to this spiritual component, some of the peoples of Central
and Eastern Europe have built Euro-compatible
homes. Others still struggle to overcome the legacies of past or present
strife. In an increasingly complex and anxious multipolar world, we must get
past our belief in the dominance of technical and material solutions.

Pavol Demes is the German Marshall
Fund’s director for Central and Eastern Europe
and an ECFR council member. This article is adapted from a paper written for
the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral

This piece was first published by Transitions Online on 14 October 2009.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.