29. Januar 2019 | EDP Wire | Solveig Richter

Democracy Promotion in the Post-Soviet Space

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir  weitere Fragen dazu beantworten, wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen. In dem dieswöchigen Beitrag, schaut sich Solveig an, wie Demokratie im post-sowjetischen Raum momentan (nicht) gefördert wird. Sie argumentiert, dass dabei besonders drei Entwicklungen beachtenswert sind: zunehmende Konfrontation zwischen der transatlantischen Gemeinschaft und Russland, abnehmende Bereitschaft der EU und den USA für demokratische Reformen einzutreten, aber ebenso positiver demokratischer Fortschritt in einigen Teilen der Region.

Status quo

Three developments are relevant when we look at the way democracy is currently (not) being promoted in the post-soviet space, specifically in the six countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine[1]: Firstly, the contestation between the transatlantic community and Russia has escalated over the past five years, with Russia using a mixture of hard and soft power (often also called hybrid warfare) to increase its sphere of influence in the region. Some of the Eastern European NATO and EU member states are pushing their organizations to have their security concerns addressed as well. This has almost resulted in open military confrontation, followed by EU sanctions against Russia and a loss of intermediary space of dialogue and soft power politics. We can also observe an increased level of polarization between and radicalization within the camps, as the heated debate about the deployment of NATO troops in the Baltic states demonstrates.

In line with this, secondly, the two major democracy promoters – the EU and the US – are less and less willing and able to pressure the countries into democratic reforms. The EU faces a severe loss of appeal due to internal crises, populism and backsliding tendencies in existing member states. This is weakening the EU’s normative coherence as a democracy promoter in the face of “alternative” forms of state authority which are being actively – directly or in subversive ways – promoted by Russia.[2] A concrete example is the more confrontational stance the right-wing government in Poland, once one of the core drivers behind the EU’s Eastern Partnership, has adopted towards neighboring Ukraine.[3] While major steps occurred in the European Neighborhood Policy (e.g. Association Agreements (AA)/Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia and visa liberalization with Georgia and with Ukraine in 2017 in addition to Moldova 2014), these were framed and implemented more as a technocratic than a political process.[4] US foreign policy towards Russia is characterized by unpredictability and an emphasis on hard power instruments. US foundations such as the Open Society Foundations which are engaged in human rights and civil society support are under pressure back home and in more established democracies in Central Europe such as Hungary, which diminishes their room for action in the post-soviet space as well. Another, more legally-oriented European democracy promoter, the Council of Europe, was shaken by corruption scandals with regard to Azerbaijan, which weakened its credibility enormously.

Thirdly, on a more positive note, the region also offers some signs of hope – notably considerable, albeit fragile progress towards democracy in Georgia and in the non-occupied parts of Ukraine, and an active pro-democratic opposition which is promoting change in the shadow of big power politics, as we have recently seen in Armenia. New democracy promoters have emerged on the scene which are trying to promote an active democratization policy: The European Endowment for Democracy (EED) was created in 2012 as a private foundation that is seeking to operate with more flexibility than established governmental institutions. However, budgetary constraints are seriously inhibiting effective projects in the region.


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall the post-soviet space has been an area of contestation between Russia and the West – both in geopolitical and in normative terms. Accordingly, democracy promotion has always been framed as an element of soft power politics by proponents such as the EU or the US and opponents such as Russia. Recently, however, the escalation of the geopolitical confrontation has brought hard power politics, e.g. military engagements, back to the headlines, further diminishing push and pull factors for democratization – whether these involve the interest of European capitals in democratic albeit risky transitions or their willingness to engage in lengthy deliberations in parliament in the face of security threats on the part of some post-soviet countries.

In line with global trends, democratic backsliding and shrinking spaces are characteristic features for political regimes in the area as well (see Gerschewski and Poppe/Wolff in this report). Freedom House categorizes three countries as having a ‘transitional government or hybrid regime’ (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine), one country as a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’ (Armenia) and two countries as ‘consolidated authoritarian regimes’ (Azerbaijan and Belarus). The 2018 report on Nations in Transit critically notes that “[a]ttacks on opposition parties, the press, and civil society organizations are becoming the norm […] as the spread of illiberal politics undermines the foundations and prospects for democracy.” Even in countries such as Ukraine, once considered a frontrunner, “the window of opportunity has not closed […], but it has shrunk.”[5] In addition, state capture is increasingly dominating the public space – the infiltration of state institutions by entrenched clientele networks which are dominating decision-making processes of the country.[6]

A specific challenge in the region is the persistence of contested statehood: Five out of the six countries are involved in unresolved secession conflicts which are heavily influencing domestic politics and are a permanent source of confrontation between Russia and Europe. In consequence, large parts of the post-soviet space are governed by regimes which are not recognized by one of the main external actors, making democracy promotion usually a secondary priority after conflict-management or stabilization to fill the security vacuum.[7]

Thus, linking the regional political challenges to the policies of major European or transatlantic democracy promoters, we can clearly see a “securitization”: Democracy promotion as an instrument of soft power of the transatlantic community is increasingly being either sidelined by “hard power” politics (e.g., NATO, OSCE) or seen as an instrument for stabilization of the region instead of as a push for reform. As an example, in 2017 the EU adjusted the European Neighborhood Policy to “focus on stabilisation, resilience and security.”[8] However, an academic consensus prevails that if democracy promotion is sub-ordinated to or aligned with geopolitical interests, it will fall short of yielding any significant impact and will even have counterproductive side-effects.[9]


External actors have to accept that in the medium-term, they will have to face illiberal politics and closing spaces in the context of strong normative contestation with Russia.[10] However, European states and the US still have a certain room for maneuver if they have the political will to support democratic change.

Firstly, in order to avoid further securitization of democracy promotion, less hard and more soft power should be applied: While it is important that security concerns are addressed within the transatlantic community, they should be dealt with by NATO. Norm-based organizations such as the EU and the Council of Europe should give greater priority to soft power in their foreign policy actions.

Secondly, and in line with this, governments following the democratic reform path need more incentives from the outside. The EU is the only organization having clear rewards in the form of a membership perspective which should be offered to countries making progress – despite Russian resistance. The case of Ukraine is crucial in this regard, since “both sides are showing signs of fatigue”[11] and it is necessary to keep the reform momentum in a key country where both Russia and the West are seeking influence.

Thirdly, Europeans should acknowledge the fact that transition to democracy in the post-soviet space is not a lost cause, since change is still being demanded bottom-up, as specifically youth organizations and nascent anti-corruption initiatives illustrate. Intergovernmental, top-down instruments of democracy promotion usually fall short of inducing change in the face of either autocrats or oligarchs.[12] However, bottom-up instruments of civil society support alone often either involve merely technical assistance or put NGOs at risk (see Poppe/Wolff in this report). Only a combination of both – project support for pro-reform activists combined with political backing and vocal critics at the governmental level – might have a political impact. Flexible democracy promoters such as the EED which is keeping the flame of democratic reforms alive should receive more support as well.

[1]     Out of the 14 Non-Russian sovereign successor states of the Former Soviet Union, three countries have already joined the EU while the five Central Asian States form a distinct region and will thus not be covered by this article.

[2]     See Grimm in this report; on the “normative war“ with Russia, see Kadri Liik 2018: Winning the Normative War with Russia: An EU-Russia Power Audit, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief, May 2018.

[3]     See Kataryna Wolczuk 2017: Abandoning the Eastern Partnership Would Be a Terrible Act of Self-Harm for Poland, Chatham House, Expert Comment, 21 November 2017.

[4]     See Balázs Jarábik 2017: Implementing the EU Association Agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 16 November 2017.

[5]     Freedom House: Confronting Illiberalism: Nations in Transit Releases 2018 edition, 11 April 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/article/confronting-illiberalism-nations-transit-releases-2018-edition (07/082018).

[6]     Richter, Solveig 2017: Der Wolf im Schafspelz: Illegitime Herrschaft durch ‚State Capture‘ in Nachkriegs- und Transitionsgesellschaften, in: Zeitschrift für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, 6: 2, 174–206.

[7]     See Dempsey, Judy 2017: Eastern Europe’s Yawning Gap, Carnegie Europe, 27 October 2017.

[8]     See European Commission 2017: Revised European Neighbourhood Policy: supporting stabilisation, resilience, security, Press Release, Brussels, 18 May 2017, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-1334_en.htm (07/08/2018).

[9]     See Solveig Richter 2012: Two at One Blow? The EU and its Quest for Security and Democracy by Political Conditionality in the Western Balkans, in: Democratization, 19: 3, 507–534.

[10]    See Rosa Balfour/Nicolas Bouchet 2018: Supporting Civil Society in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans: Old and New Challenges, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Policy Brief, 27 February 2018; and Liik 2018 (footnote 46).

[11]    See Jarábik 2017 (footnote 48).

[12]    See Solveig Richter/Natasha Wunsch 2019: Money, Power, Glory: The Linkage between EU Conditionality and Domestic Politics in the Western Balkans, forthcoming in: Journal of European Public Policy.

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