Policy Recommendations: Democracy in Europe and Eurasia
To counter the democratic breakdown recorded by Nations in Transit, democracies, especially the United States and European Union member states, should do the following:
Strengthen and protect core values
1. Ensure that political leaders promote democratic values and the protection of human rights through their own words and actions. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the importance of public trust in democratic institutions and elected leaders, exposing weaknesses in many established democracies. When senior officials in such countries attack the press, the judiciary, or other institutions, they further undermine faith in democracy around the world. Political leaders should demonstrate respect for fundamental norms at home by adhering to the relevant domestic legislation and parallel international human rights standards, and by refraining from rhetoric that contradicts those standards. Doing so will give them greater credibility and present a positive model for individuals still struggling to bring democracy to their countries.
2. Make the promotion of democracy and human rights a priority in bilateral relations, focusing attention and funding on countries at critical junctures. While economic deals and financial assistance can jumpstart cooperation and help people on the ground, it is crucial to incorporate democracy and human rights considerations into such agreements. Special attention should be paid to countries undergoing significant governance transitions, including Armenia and Ukraine, as well as those in the Balkans and Central Europe that are backsliding.
- In Central Europe, make funding conditional on respecting democratic values and push on key areas related to the rule of law and media freedom. Given the EU’s lack of success to date in addressing autocratization in Hungary and Poland, member states should adopt a simple and uniformly applicable method for making EU funding conditional on respect for democratic values. The upcoming German presidency should also restart monitoring of the rule of law, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Hungary and Poland. The United States could generate broader benefits for democracy through targeted funding programs that support media freedom, including the return of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty to the region.
- In the Balkans, prioritize long-term democratic progress over short-term political and economic considerations. Despite a number of successful political deals and technical progress toward accession to the EU, Nations in Transit has recorded democratic deterioration in the region, especially in Serbia and Montenegro. The revamping of the accession process can serve as opportunity: membership might not be on immediate offer, but the EU should make sure that it remains a credible partner in the meantime, including for Kosovo, and that good governance and democracy criteria remain frontloaded in the process. The recent renewal of engagement by the United States was a much-needed step, but to secure lasting results Washington needs to work in close cooperation with European allies and reintegrate its traditional foreign policy emphasis on democracy.
- In Ukraine, support participatory, transparent, and accountable governance. Assistance and support from the United States and European governments have played a crucial role and should continue to bolster Ukraine’s progress. Policymakers should prioritize programs meant to fight corruption; they should also closely monitor limitations on freedom of expression, making sure that any restrictions adopted are necessary and proportionate. In addition, to keep Ukraine’s democracy safe and healthy, democratic partners should back initiatives that strengthen independent oversight of security services and that work toward preventing and responding to hate-motivated violence against vulnerable communities.
- In Armenia, invest heavily in programs that support the rule of law and strengthen independent institutions, including comprehensive judicial and police reforms. A national consensus in favor of political change, the rule of law, and the elimination of systemic corruption formed the basis of Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution. This public demand provides a historic opportunity for democracy’s advocates inside and outside the country. Both the United States and the EU have stepped up support, but their programs should also focus on maintaining social cohesion and addressing political polarization. Overcoming these challenges could be the key to success for any other reforms.
3. Safeguard the rule of law and the judiciary in at-risk countries. An independent judiciary is an indispensable bulwark against authoritarian power grabs. But even in the more democratic countries evaluated in Nations in Transit, the justice system has been plagued by politicization and corruption. Judicial organizations should continue to receive technical legal assistance, including resources for improving ethics and accountability, while democratic partner governments should closely monitor and speak out against attacks on the courts in the region. All countries should abide by the Venice Commission’s 2016 rule of law checklist, which sets out the core elements of a democratic legal system.
4. Support civil society and grassroots movements calling for democracy. Democratic governments should provide vocal, public support for grassroots prodemocracy movements, and respond to any effort to suppress them by imposing targeted sanctions, reducing or conditioning foreign assistance, and condemning the crackdown in public statements. Civil society groups, citizen-led social movements, and other nonstate actors with democratic agendas should receive technical assistance and training on issues such as coalition and constituency building, advocacy, and how to maintain both physical and digital security.
Guard against manipulation by authoritarian actors
1. Impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses and acts of corruption. In the United States, a variety of laws allow authorities to block visas for and freeze the assets of any people or entities, including private companies, that engage in or support corruption or human rights abuses. These accountability tools, such as the Global Magnitsky Act, enable governments to punish perpetrators without harming the general population. Countries with similar laws should robustly enforce them, and the EU should prioritize the creation of its own such mechanism.
2. Take steps to invigorate the fight against kleptocracy and transnational corruption.
- In the European Union, the centralized disbursement of EU funding by national governments can be a significant source of corruption. Most EU countries covered in Nations in Transit lack domestic mechanisms that guarantee the transparent use of these funds. The EU should make sure that the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), a union-level body recently set up to investigate and prosecute fraud involving EU money, is adequately resourced and able to investigate such crimes in all member states.
- In the United States, the proposed CROOK Act (H.R. 3843) would establish an action fund offering financial assistance to foreign countries during historic windows of opportunity for anticorruption reforms. Another draft law, the Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 1309), would require the US government to assess corruption around the world and produce a tiered list of countries. US foreign assistance directed at the lowest-tiered countries would require specific risk assessments and anticorruption mechanisms, such as provisions to recover funds that are misused. Both measures would contribute significantly to the global fight against corruption, and both should be passed into law.
3. Monitor and work to limit China’s corrosive influence in the region. Civil society groups and independent news outlets should vigilantly monitor any technology transfers, emerging investments, infrastructure developments, elite co-optation, and media manipulation related to China. With the help of democratic governments, they should expose any evidence of bilateral collaboration with Beijing that could result in human rights violations, and urge their governments to resist the temptation of adopting the sorts of censorship and surveillance methods pioneered by the Chinese Communist Party.
4. Restrict the export of sophisticated surveillance tools to authoritarian and hybrid regimes. Technologies such as facial-recognition surveillance, automated social media monitoring, and targeted interception or collection of communications data can empower authoritarian governments to violate fundamental rights. The sale of such technologies—including those that use machine learning, natural-language processing, and deep learning—should be restricted for countries that are classified as authoritarian or hybrid regimes in Nations in Transit.
Nations in Transit 2020
Nations in Transit 2020 finds weakened institutions in Europe and Eurasia as politicians flout democratic norms
Nations in Transit Map
Explore our data on Europe and Eurasia by democracy status!
Nations in Transit evaluates the state of democracy in the region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia.