Democracy Retreating

The democratic transformation of the post-communist group of nations in Eastern Europe and Eurasia has lost a lot of steam in recent years. Since the color revolutions and other successful transitions to representative governments and open societies, many other nations have experienced rising trends of authoritarianism. What’s behind this? An interesting essay from the think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute points to a newly aggressive Russia, Europe’s expansion fatigue, American ineptitude in its civil society programs, and a general, widespread disillusionment with democracy as a governing principle. Of all the emerging democracies, hybrid regimes, and outright autocracies, author Adrian Basora notes that “The most serious—and hardest to reverse—setbacks have been in Russia and in its eight “sister autocracies” already discussed. Their total population is 220 million, and their landmass and resources are far larger than those of the non-autocracies. By these measures, therefore, the democratization glass is still more than half empty.”

Original article can be found at the website for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:

The Continued Retreat of Democracy in Postcommunist Europe and Eurasia?November 2007By Adrian A. BasoraAdrian A. Basora is a former U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and is currently Director of FPRI’s Project on Democratic Transitions. This enote is based on his article in the forthcoming Winter 2008 issue of Orbis, which includes several other articles also based on the Project’s work.By the end of 2004, five new electoral revolutions seemed to constitute the leading edge of a second major wave of transformation destined to sweep through much of postcommunist Europe and Eurasia. December 2004 saw the election of reformist Victor Yushchenko’s as Ukraine’s president, the highpoint of that country’s Orange Revolution. One year earlier, Georgia’s Rose Revolution had triumphed in the streets of Tblisi. And, leading up to these two revolutions, there had been similar democratic breakthroughs in Slovakia (1998), Croatia (2000) and Serbia (2000).Most Western analysts saw these five regime changes as building upon and extending the postcommunist reform model that originated in 1989 in Poland and Czechoslovakia. By 2004, successful democratic reform had already transformed the four “Vysegrad” countries of Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics), the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and Slovenia.Over the past three years, however, this second democratization wave has dissipated, and much of the optimism of the first fifteen years of postcommunist transformation has disappeared. Some analysts conclude that democracy in the region is in retreat; others argue that, even if most of the democratic gains of 1989-2004 can still be preserved, the democratization model that worked so well in the past is no longer applicable and new breakthroughs are unlikely in the foreseeable future.Despite setbacks, recent elections in Ukraine and Poland make it clear that further democratic progress remains achievable in many of these countries—particularly if we learn and apply lessons from the earlier transition experiences and recognize that Europe and Eurasia have entered a markedly new phase, a “post-postcommunist era” that presents more difficult challenges than those of the 1990s. But a reinvigorated strategy—better coordinated joint efforts, bringing together regional expertise on transition issues with Western institutional support—will be needed. If the West fails to make this effort, the vision and the promise of 1989 may be lost indefinitely.What Went Wrong?The old democratization model has either stalled or lost ground in many of the ex-communist states. Moldova, which showed promise in the 1990s, has generally regressed in recent years, as have Ukraine, Georgia, and other intermediate-stage postcommunist countries. For example, the leaders of Kiev’s Orange Revolution split among themselves, thus permitting the Revolution’s nemesis, Viktor Yanukovich, to become prime minister and to gain increased power at the expense of the reformist camp. In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s autocratic tendencies and ineffectiveness in fighting corruption have marred the Rose Revolution’s early promise.Democracy and economic liberalization have suffered setbacks even in some of the frontrunner states. Recent elections in Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have produced governments that are either less reformist or less effective than their predecessors. And in April 2007, just three months after Romania’s accession to the EU, the government of Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu was purged of its key reform ministers. There was also an unsuccessful attempt to remove President Traian Basescu, the country’s most visible reform advocate.Most menacingly, autocratic rulers in Russia (Vladimir Putin), Belarus (Alexandr Lukashenko), and the Central Asian republics (Kazakstan’s President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev) have steadily consolidated their power, and others have moved quickly, systematically, and sometimes brutally to inoculate their societies against what they see as the “democracy virus.” Having drawn clear lessons from the region’s earlier revolutions, they are determined not to permit similar developments in their own countries.The Post-Postcommunist ParadigmUnderlying the current pessimism is a paradigm shift involving the fundamental geostrategic and economic influences affecting the region. Russia has taken an aggressive new stance, the EU is experiencing “expansion fatigue,” U.S. democracy-promotion efforts have diminished in effectiveness, and disillusionment with democracy has grown within the transitional countries themselves.For Moscow, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was a galvanizing shock. Putin and the Kremlin’s “political technologists” interpreted events in Ukraine, Georgia, and their precursors as the result of foreign (largely American-sponsored) subversion. Since then, Moscow regularly has condemned Western efforts to support democracy in Russia or its “near abroad.” This is not the weak Russia of the late 1990s speaking. By 2004, Russia had rebounded from its earlier economic and political crises (with a strong assist from energy prices), and Putin had consolidated his power. The Kremlin is making it clear that Russia is back and determined to minimize Western influence in the region.The emerging Russian model of “sovereign democracy” is tightly controlled, characterized by strong state manipulation of the sources of wealth. This model has provided a welcome example for other autocratic leaders in the Soviet successor states and has proven attractive to many in Russia, as well, due in part to Russia’s recent prosperity. Additionally, many citizens simply seek order and security after the turbulence they experienced under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As a result, Putin is highly popular in Russia. Indeed, in a majority of the former Soviet authoritarian republics, the perceived trade-off between prosperity and stability, on the one hand, and political pluralism, on the other, has produced popular quiescence to authoritarianism.Further reinforcing this trend is increased cooperation between the Kremlin and other like-minded regimes. This includes not only bilateral efforts to strengthen anti-democracy strategies, but also multilateral efforts such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Participating autocrats can now mutually defend each others’ forms of nominal democracy and jointly invoke the principle of non-interference by outsiders in their domestic affairs.Russia’s reemergence as a negative factor for democratic progress in its former empire has coincided with the decline of the two positive factors for reform in the region: U.S. and EU efforts. During the early 1990s, the U.S. took a strong lead in encouraging market reform and democratization in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Furthermore, for those who feared that their new-found independence might not last, NATO membership loomed as an essential bulwark against the possibility of a Russian return. Under Washington’s lead, the opening of NATO to former communist countries created a powerful transformational lure. Then, starting in the latter half of the decade, the EU took over much of the economic assistance effort and began to assert greater leadership in the democratic transformation overall. Most crucially, Brussels opened up the possibility of EU membership to these countries, subject to their reform success. Even as Western Europeans’ role grew, however, the U.S. remained actively engaged in the region, both bilaterally and through its influence in multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.Since the Iraq intervention, however, the U.S. has suffered a sharp loss of credibility in the region. While some of the “new Europe” countries have been willing to participate militarily in Iraq (or earlier in Afghanistan), they have done so for reasons other than aligning with the new U.S. approach to democracy promotion. The U.S.’s tarnished image as a democracy advocate is now lending superficial plausibility to denunciations of American-supported democracy initiatives.Washington’s intense focus on the war on terror has also diverted its resources away from Europe and Eurasia, and most American private foundations have tended to follow suit. The result has been a decline in educational and leadership exchanges, less assistance by American NGOs to civil society organizations in the region, and cutbacks in other long-term programs that had proven valuable both during the Cold War and thereafter.Meanwhile, by the late 1990s, after the first round of NATO expansion had been completed and with NATO’s role in driving democratization receding somewhat, the EU emerged as arguably the most important external force guiding the transition to democracy and market economics regionally. During the first round of EU expansion (which involved Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia), accession negotiations proved to be a powerful incentive and mechanism for promoting reform, and once these eight countries became formal EU members, their leaders’ interaction with Brussels provided additional consolidating influence.In Bulgaria and Romania, the two most recent former communist countries to be admitted to the EU (in January 2007), many observers viewed the preparatory process as too hurried, with reforms not sufficiently embedded in the acceding countries’ political institutions and cultures. It remains to be seen whether Brussels retains sufficient leverage to ensure that the unfinished reforms in these two countries are completed.In contrast with the ten new EU members, the other 18 postcommunist countries face an uncertain future relationship with Brussels. The spring 2005 defeat of the proposed new EU constitution in France and the Netherlands has halted further EU expansion, which is a major setback for the forces of reform in these countries. Brussels has an alternate mechanism, its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), to address the needs of these countries through means other than accession negotiations, but this has so far proven inadequate to its task. The ENP covers not only countries in Eastern Europe, but also North African and Near East states such as Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Tunisia. This least common denominator thus has a powerful diluting effect.In the Balkans (Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia or Albania), the EU’s expansion halt may have a less severe impact than in the former Soviet republics, because the EU and the West more generally have been engaged deeply in the region’s postconflict stabilization. The groundwork is being laid down for the eventual assimilation of these four countries into the family of Western democracies.The split between Washington and several Western European capitals after the 2003 Iraq invasion has also meant a less united approach to the formerly communist region as a whole. This dissonance has not only made for less effective democracy-promotion coordination, it has also weakened earlier joint U.S.-European efforts to ensure continued focus by the multilateral financial institutions. Moreover, NATO membership, while still highly attractive to a country like Georgia that sees an imminent Russian threat, is now a less compelling goal for many postcommunist countries.The fourth significant change making this post-postcommunist period more difficult stems from the imperfections of democracy and market economics as experienced in the region itself. For many Russians, the Yeltsin period now symbolizes all the ills of what the Kremlin depicts as a Western-imposed capitalist democracy model. For many, Yeltsin’s rule meant chaos, corruption, the growth of mafias and crime, and the stripping of state assets by the new oligarchs. Even in Central Europe, positive results came slowly during the early postcommunist years. While capable leaders in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary initiated more complete reforms than did Yeltsin, their efforts were far from satisfactory to the citizens’ expectations. Moreover, negative memories from the communist period have faded. Some are too young to remember, and those of the older generation who are not among the “winners” in the postcommunist economies tend to look back with nostalgia. Thus the powerful internal push for democratic reform that led to the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the democratic breakthroughs of the early 1990s is now less intense than in the early postcommunist years.How Much Gained/How Much Lost?The 28 former communist countries can be looked at in four categories: moderately advanced democracies, emerging democracies, hybrid regimes, and autocracies. Trend analysis within these four major groupings is an essential basis for assessing these countries’ potential for future democratic progress and for developing the most effective strategies and approaches to avoid further regression and to encourage progress wherever feasible. Analyzing the rankings in Freedom House’s Nations in Transition reports, which it has produced since 1997 (published by Rowman & Littlefield; see for the current year), which, though imperfect, are the best available rankings, one sees strikingly divergent—and quite suggestive—characteristics among these four groupings.Moderately Advanced Democracies (8)Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Poland have scores well above the 3.00 threshold that Freedom House uses to define “Consolidated Democracies.” Since 1989-91, all of these countries have had several free elections, resulting in genuine alternation of power. For several years, all eight have maintained free press and media, an active civil society, reasonably good human rights records, largely privatized and prospering market economies, plus strong ties to the West. By 2004, all had achieved full membership in both NATO and the EU.However, with the notable exception of Slovakia, as of a decade ago most of these countries were already close to their current level of democratic performance. Three of them—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, all front-runners in the early 1990s—are less advanced today than they were ten years ago. Four others—Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—had already achieved most or all of their progress by 1997. Only Slovakia has progressed dramatically, and this progress occurred after the 1998 elections that replaced Vladimir Meciar with a committed and effective reform government. Thus, under the right conditions, substantial and enduring democratic progress can be achieved in a relatively short time if competent leaders move quickly to implement a thorough reform program. After this initial sprint, however, the full consolidation of democracy is a much longer-term endeavor, and the road can be quite bumpy.Emerging Democracies (7)This second group of countries is quite disparate. Two of them, Bulgaria and Romania, have already achieved NATO and EU membership. However, as noted above, many believe that the reforms on which these accessions was based were less complete and less consolidated than those of the eight frontrunners.The next four of these countries—Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro—are all products of the former Yugoslavia’s break-up. They have all been handicapped by ethnic tensions and the fallout of civil war. The seventh country, Albania, entered the postcommunist period as the most isolated and least developed country of the Balkan region and still has serious problems of social development, crime and corruption.What these countries share is location in the same protected corner of Europe, surrounded by democracies. And they have all made progress, which is particularly encouraging considering the devastating civil war that marked the break-up of Yugoslavia. These states have benefited from major assistance from the West for years, and they already have close ties with the EU and other Western entities. Of the five non-EU members in this group, only Croatia has been given strong encouragement as to its prospects for EU accession, but the other four continue to benefit from substantial EU assistance and have presumably received enough “winks and nods” to remain hopeful that their turn for EU and NATO membership will eventually come. In the meantime, all of these countries benefit from increasing commercial, cultural, tourist, educational and other exchanges with their democratic neighbors.On balance, reasonable prospects for progress towards further democratization exist in all seven of these emerging democracies, but risks remain. Serbia’s politics are still deeply roiled by nationalism, Macedonia’s fragile multi-ethnic structure could easily break down, and each of the others contains its own vulnerabilities that could trigger political regression.Hybrid Regimes (4)These four countries—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova—make a more disparate group. Bosnia seems destined to join the Emerging Democracy category soon, but the other three are all former Soviet republics where Moscow maintains strong interest and significant leverage.Ukraine is the clear heavyweight among the hybrids. Even including the seven Emerging Democracies in the comparison, it is far and away the transitional country most likely to have the broadest impact throughout the postcommunist region. It has made significant progress over the past few years, even if that progress appears to be largely a recapturing of gains made a decade earlier. The question is whether these gains will now be consolidated and lead to further democratization progress.The September 30, 2007 elections in Ukraine shed light on both the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in the country. Although the standoff between the president and parliament that led to these elections had threatened to destabilize the country, the crisis was in the end resolved by constitutional means and Ukrainians once again demonstrated that they have confidence in the democratic process. The election gave Ukraine’s democratic reformers a unique chance to learn from their mistakes, and on October 15, 2007 the Orange Coalition agreed to create a reformist government, albeit one based on only a three-vote majority in parliament. While regression remains a distinct danger, progress remains a real possibility.Georgia is yet another special case. Despite the considerable publicity and enthusiasm created in the West by Tblisi’s Rose Revolution, the country’s 2007 Freedom House score is virtually identical to that of 1997. This is because, after a promising start in the early 1990s, there was significant political regression in the later Schevarnadze years. The Saakashvili regime has made only minimal progress since the 2003 election that brought it to power. Georgia’s desire for NATO membership is matched by Russia’s desire to avoid having yet another NATO presence on its borders, and Moscow retains considerable potential for harm via its support for de facto breakaway governments in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s future is thus very hard to predict.Moldova, the smallest of these three former Soviet republics, is also an interesting case of retardation after a promising start. As of 1997, it had rated a score on a par with “semi-consolidated democracies” such as Bulgaria and Romania. However, it has fallen to the bottom rung among the hybrid regimes and is very close to joining the Authoritarian grouping. The country’s regression since 1997 derives from several factors, including the Moscow-supported breakaway of its trans-Dniester region. Although the election in June 2007 of a young reformist as mayor of Chisinau introduced a ray of hope, it is hard to see reform succeeding at the national level as long as Russia continues to back the separatist “Republic of Trans-Dniestria.”Bosnia-Herzegovina has made steady albeit slow progress towards democracy since the end of its civil war in 1995 and is now furthest along among the four Hybrids on the Freedom House scale. This progress has required massive U.S. and Western European military and diplomatic intervention and maintaining a de facto Western protectorate for the past several years. However, assuming Western willingness to sustain several more years of assistance and tutelage, Bosnia may well follow in the positive footsteps of its Balkan neighbors. Nevertheless, given the deep scars of its civil war and the jerry-rigged, duplicative, ethnically based federal structure, one can imagine continued political gridlock or even a descent back into ethnic violence if these issues are not properly managed with the benefit of Western commitment.Autocracies (9)All nine of these countries—Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—have one critical trend in common over the past several years: increasing consolidation of autocracy.Russia appeared to start out more promisingly than the other eight Autocracies. With Yeltsin’s advent in 1991, Russia experienced a rapid opening up of political freedoms and extensive industrial privatization. By the latter years of his presidency, most of this reform impetus had been lost and some regression had begun. With Putin’s election in 2000, the democratic regression accelerated, and with his reelection in 2004, it was clear that Putin’s goal was full authoritarian consolidation.Most of the other eight Autocracies started out on an authoritarian footing from the moment the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. When they gained independence, power devolved upon the same autocratic communist-era republic leaders, some of whom initiated significant economic changes and permitted a degree of political freedom. In Central Asia, however, none of the new rulers relinquished the levers of autocratic power. State bureaucracies remained in place and the old communist nomenklatura continued to hold positions of power. Elections were rigged, and what little freedom did emerge was kept within careful limits. Men like Nazarbayev, Lukashenko, Aliev, and “Turkmenbashi” became the focus of new cults of personality. Since 1991, some of these leaders have died or otherwise fallen by the wayside. In Azerbaijan, Aliev succeeded in passing on power to his son; in other cases, the ruling apparatus has chosen a successor behind the scenes. Discounting the initial brief glimmers of hope surrounding the “Denim Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, none of these regimes has shown any major chinks in its authoritarian armor.ConclusionsWhile democracy has suffered significant retreats in the postcommunist region since 2004, those retreats are far from being a rout. Compared to the situation in 1989, overall progress towards democratization has been remarkable.On the positive side are the eight Moderately Advanced Democracies, along with Bulgaria and Romania. Although the latter two countries are not yet as far along as the eight frontrunners, they will almost certainly get there in time by virtue of their geographic location and their full integration into NATO and the EU. More tentatively, one could put the other six Balkan countries (Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia) on the positive side. While their progress continues to be slow and uneven, their location and high levels of Western assistance make prolonged regression unlikely. These 16 countries, with a total population of 130 million, add a major new dimension to both democratic Europe and to the transatlantic alliance.Hanging in the balance between authoritarianism and further democratization are the three strategically located former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, with a total population of 57 million. As discussed earlier, these countries could go either way, and given the size and location of Ukraine, however, the impact would be particularly devastating if it were to join the ranks of the confirmed autocracies.The most serious—and hardest to reverse—setbacks have been in Russia and in its eight “sister autocracies” already discussed. Their total population is 220 million, and their landmass and resources are far larger than those of the non-autocracies. By these measures, therefore, the democratization glass is still more than half empty.It is not yet time for excessive pessimism or loss of resolve. Despite the slippage, it should be possible to preserve most of the democratization achieved since 1989. Furthermore, in at least some countries of the region, lessons of the post-1989 period can help to create further progress towards democratization. The above analysis suggest the following premises for policymakers and opinion-molders in the U.S. and in Europe’s old and new democracies alike.First, democracy must be further consolidated and reinforced in the 15 Already Democratic or Emerging Democracy countries. The efforts that Western governments, NGOs, and multilateral institutions have made to assist democratic reformers in these countries since 1989 have already laid solid foundations. Continued attention to their consolidation should pay significant dividends. The methods used to help bring ten of these countries to NATO accession and EU membership should be applied to the remaining five countries in this group. Success in this endeavor would have important repercussions.With respect to Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia, the West should devote major attention and resources to encouraging and assisting the forces of democratic reform. Although the post-postcommunist paradigm makes the task more difficult, it also makes the challenge more compelling and urgent. Nevertheless, these four countries have already had enough exposure to democracy and to the transatlantic community to make the task feasible. The payoffs would be high, and the consequences of failure severe indeed.As to the nine Autocracies, the timeframe for any potential democratic evolution must be measured in decades rather than years. The West can and should lay the groundwork for possible future democratic breakthroughs, while realizing that it is a long-term endeavor. Today’s policymakers and democracy-promoters have much to learn from the forms of long-term engagement that were pursued with such patience and foresight during the latter decades of the Cold War.Democracy in the formerly communist countries of Europe and Eurasia is neither triumphant nor defeated, but the job is still less than half done. Positive momentum was an important factor in the spread of democracy in the 1990s and even through 2004, and this positive momentum can be regained if the West looks to the lessons of history.