To counter the spread of antidemocratic practices in Europe and Eurasia, democratic countries, especially the United States and European Union (EU) member states, should consider the following policy recommendations.
Nurturing opportunities for democracy in Europe and Eurasia
Reinvigorate alliances with other democracies, and support multilateral institutions. The expansion of antidemocratic governance in Europe and Eurasia can be countered by cooperation and information sharing among democracies, and their full engagement in multilateral institutions. The United States, EU, and democratic alliances should work to address the threat posed by antidemocratic norm setting and prevent authoritarian-minded governments from ignoring international commitments and taking advantage of international systems, including the EU and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Democracies should adopt policies that efficiently and effectively counter the spread of antidemocratic practices, and should hold each other accountable for living up to democratic ideals.
Invest in independent elections. Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of any democracy, and independent and transparent electoral processes are necessary to foster a competitive electoral environment and citizens’ trust in election integrity. Yet, politicians across the region have bent the rules to further entrench their control over elections, making peaceful transfers of power increasingly difficult. Work by the United States, EU, and other democracies to support free and fair elections across Europe and Eurasia should emphasize the importance of impartial election observation and efforts to combat disinformation.
- Impartial election observers are key to ensuring trust in electoral processes. Governments across the region should support and welcome robust observation, including by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The ODIHR’s well-established methodology, which includes both long-term assessments of the campaign environment and election-day observations, can inform the operations of smaller and domestic observer missions. National authorities should regularly reexamine past observations’ findings and act upon recommendations to improve or reform their electoral processes.
- In addition, given the extent and impact of digital disinformation and election interference across the region, the OSCE should further incorporate digital election interference into its election-monitoring methodology, especially the sections on long-term observation practices.
Support civil society and grassroots movements calling for democracy. Peaceful protest movements appealing for reform can drive long-term democratic change, but face greater odds without international support—as the brutal crackdowns on protesters in Belarus and Russia have demonstrated. The United States, EU, and other democratic governments should provide vocal, public support for grassroots prodemocracy movements, and respond to any violent crackdown by authorities with targeted sanctions, reduced or conditioned foreign assistance, and public condemnation. Democracies should also be ready to welcome human rights defenders who face attacks, grave threats, unlawful detention, or other dangers due to their work. Civil society groups, citizen-led social movements, and other nonstate actors with democratic agendas should be provided with technical assistance and training on issues such as coalition and constituency building, advocacy, and physical and digital security.
- The EU should ensure that its annual rule-of-law reports for member states—which are intended to “facilitate cooperation and dialogue in order to prevent problems from reaching the point where a formal response is required”—describe how well civil society is protected in practice, and whether groups are able to operate openly and freely.
- The United States and other democratic governments should ensure that financial assistance is focused on fostering systemic resilience. This should include providing assistance on sustainable business models; incentivizing the philanthropic community to support civil society organizations, including with core funding; increasing transparency around the activities of government-supported NGOs (GONGOs); and engaging with grassroots actors.
- The United States, EU, and other democratic governments should maintain a principled stance on bilateral engagement with governments that implement so-called foreign agent laws, laws on “undesirable organizations,” and other cynical measures that purport to promote transparency but in practice target legitimate civil society groups. National authorities should directly challenge these policies and raise human rights concerns in every bilateral engagement. More broadly, democracies should condemn the current global trend of criminalizing civil society engagement with out-of-country partners, donors, and other stakeholders.
Support free and independent media. Providing the public with access to fact-based information about current events is one of the best ways to combat authoritarian power. It is especially important during times of emergency, and will remain essential as the world begins to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Governments should provide support for independent media, including exile media, such as financial assistance, technical support, skills training, and mentoring. Laws should protect the free flow of information, allow journalists access to elected officials, allow the public to place freedom of information requests, and guard against state monopolization of media outlets.
- In the United States, the Biden administration should restore the regulatory “firewall” protecting editorial independence at the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The firewall’s elimination in 2020 harms the credibility of US public broadcasters operating in foreign countries and limits their effectiveness in countering propaganda. Full, bipartisan support is necessary to ensure the integrity and robust operations of USAGM-sponsored media outlets. Notably, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has come under assault in Europe and Eurasia, with a spurious case pending against it in Russia and harassment and threats, including death threats, levied against its investigative journalists in Kyrgyzstan. The United States, EU, and other democracies should insist that the government of Russia immediately drop its politically motivated investigation of RFE/RL, and call on officials in Kyrgyzstan to fully investigate threats against RFE/RL journalists and hold perpetrators accountable.
- In the EU, governments should work to ensure that the system of media capture pioneered and exported by Hungary does not take root in Poland and other countries. This strategy can be countered through a vocal defense of media pluralism by senior officials and the adoption of EU-wide rules on transparency of media ownership. The European Commission’s rule-of-law reports should include an assessment of independence at state-owned media in each member state to enable early detection of signs of media capture; these outlets are often the first to be co-opted if a hostile government comes to power.
- In the EU, governments should address the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to stifle investigative journalism. The EU should promote an anti-SLAPP directive that would give journalists and media groups the ability to request rapid dismissal of these types of lawsuits in member states, and provide financial support to media groups facing them.
- Democracies should also scale up efforts to support independent media. In the United States, the executive branch should work with Congress to create a large-scale Enterprise Fund for Independent Media. This fund would invest in promoting free expression and quality journalism internationally, and would seek financing partnerships with democratic allies; its efforts should focus on supporting the emergence and sustainability of independent media, promoting effective investigative journalism, and protecting journalists at risk. To elevate diplomatic work centered on media freedom, the United States should appoint a Special Envoy for Press Freedom. As part of a comprehensive strategy to protect journalists, this envoy, working with the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, should track and recommend action against governments and officials who persecute and intimidate journalists.
Promote international peer-to-peer exchanges. In light of growing authoritarianism and escalating tensions between democracies and authoritarian regimes, peer-to-peer exchanges are critical in fostering relationships among future leaders. Cultural, educational, and professional exchanges help build understanding and strengthen partnerships between nations and offer future leaders a platform to develop collaborative, innovative strategies to fight back against attacks on democracy and reverse democratic erosion. The United States, EU, and other democracies should increase investments in such programs to empower young leaders to strengthen democratic governance around the world. In the United States, programs such as the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program for high school students from Europe and Eurasia, and the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI) Fellowship Program for emerging entrepreneurs from Europe, have provided young people important opportunities for professional development, and fostered lasting, positive relationships among potential future leaders. Democratic governments should also help fund events that connect activists and civil society groups across borders, so they can share strategies, tools, and approaches.
Countering threats to democracy in Europe and Eurasia
The European Union should take urgent action to end ongoing attacks on democracy inside the union. The EU’s rule-of-law mechanisms should be used in a strategic, comprehensive, and systematic manner, deploying all tools available including infringement and monitoring measures, as well as financial penalties. The European Commission last year added a mechanism to the EU’s budget that allows the EU to withhold funding for member states that fail to uphold the rule of law. Poland and Hungary have filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over this new mechanism. The ECJ should address this complaint in an expedited manner, and the European Commission should trigger this mechanism against noncompliant member states as soon as possible. The commission should also enforce Article 260 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which allows for financial penalties in cases where a member state fails to implement ECJ rulings. For Article 7 proceedings, which aim to punish member states that violate the common values of the EU by suspending certain rights guaranteed by the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), the European Council should keep Poland and Hungary on the agenda and organize at least one hearing per EU presidency.
Utilize targeted sanctions as part of a comprehensive strategy of accountability for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Targeted sanctions against individuals who engage in egregious human rights abuses or large-scale corruption are not a standalone solution, but are a powerful tool for deterring harmful behavior. Democracies should devise comprehensive strategies for deploying targeted sanctions in concert with their full suite of foreign policy tools to bring accountability for international human rights abuses and acts of corruption. When possible, democracies should coordinate their efforts to jointly impose sanctions on perpetrators for maximum impact. Recent targeted sanctions imposed jointly by the United States, EU, United Kingdom, and Canada on four Chinese officials and a security organization over the mass detention of Uyghurs and other members of religious and ethnic minority groups should serve as a model for multilateral coordination on sanctions to maximize impact. Democratic nations that do not yet have laws allowing for targeted sanctions for human rights abuses and acts of corruption should enact them, and those with laws on the books should ensure that they are fully resourced and enforced.
- The US Congress should reauthorize the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (22 USC 2656 note), which allows for visa bans and asset freezes on individuals and entities engaged in human rights abuses and corruption. Reauthorization should eliminate the December 23, 2022, sunset and codify Executive Order 13818, which enables the United States to impose sanctions for serious human rights abuses. The executive branch and Congress should work together to ensure adequate funding for sanctions implementation and enforcement.
- In the EU, officials should continue to utilize the global human rights sanctions regime adopted in December 2020, including by imposing sanctions against those involved in gross human rights violations in Russia and Belarus. The EU should expand the regime, or adopt new regulations, to make acts of corruption a sanctionable offense.
Take steps to more effectively address kleptocracy and transnational corruption. Governments broadly agree that addressing the corrosive effects of global corruption is critical. However, the nearly universal political statements of intent to combat corruption have not been translated into effective action to root it out. Any serious effort to promote democracy and counter authoritarianism must include measures to combat corruption and kleptocracy, which have become business models for modern-day authoritarians.
- Given the transnational nature of corruption, the United States, the EU and its member states, and democratic governments worldwide should develop and implement comprehensive strategies that prioritize anticorruption efforts at home and abroad. This should include pursuing an anticorruption agenda across international bodies including the United Nations, OSCE, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and others, and promoting coordination among them. There is also a need to focus on implementation and enforcement, ensuring that states actually adhere to the anticorruption commitments they voluntarily made. Democracies should include civil society in discussions of anticorruption programs, as they often play key implementation and monitoring roles.
- 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 ensure that there is effective follow-up on European Anti-Fraud Office reports, which document fraud against the EU budget and corruption within the EU’s institutions, and outline consequences for misuse. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office should consider the merits and feasibility of proposals to establish a list of the worst corruption offenders.
- In the United States, the proposed CROOK Act (S.158/H.R.402) 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.14), 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.
Countries & Data
Nations in Transit is Freedom House’s research project on democracy in the 29 formerly communist countries from Central Europe to Central Asia.
Explore the interactive Nations in Transit 2021 map here, where you can view countries by Democracy Status and by trend.
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