Atlanticism in retreat? Stress testing Central European democracy

The special relationships that once bound the United States to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are all but gone, according to A. Wess Mitchell, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Jan Havranek, Director of the Defense Policy and Strategy Division at the Czech Ministry of Defense. The combination of faltering Euro-Atlantic institutions, struggling democracy and resurgent Russian influence could lead to bad outcomes for U.S. strategic interests down the road, they write for The American Interest.

From Warsaw to Sofia, governments in the region seem more interested in improving ties with Berlin or even Moscow than in tending links with Washington—or, for that matter, Brussels. The geopolitical story of the region today thus concerns not only a crisis of Atlanticism (in essence, the idea that culturally Western liberal democracies have enough in common to work together for mutual benefit), but European integration as well.

New “Middle Zone”

There is today a new “Middle Zone” forming in Central Europe composed of states varyingly integrated into both Atlantic and pan-European institutions that find themselves wedged between a German-led fiscal core to the west and a Russian-dominated purgatory of corrupt and compromised states to the east. This is not what either Americans or Europeans intended when Central Europe entered NATO and the European Union after the Cold War. 

Atlanticism’s role is far from finished in the region. Properly revived, it can guard against the return of geopolitics, it can fight the institutional erosion that is increasingly found in the region’s still-young democracies, and it can thus cement the full array of Central Europe’s hard-won gains of the past two and a half decades. Ironic as it may seem, a revived Atlanticism can also re-forge the shield that allowed European integration to advance in the first place. But that revival will require what robust Atlanticism has always required: American leadership.

Stress Testing Central European Democracy

On the surface, democracy in the Central European core is stronger in both institutional and human terms than ever before. Every country in the region holds regular, free and open elections; mainstream parties dominate the parliaments; political debate is vibrant; and media outlets are generally free. But beneath the surface, there are worrying signs. International attention has tended to gravitate to Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orbán appears to be orchestrating a deliberate consolidation of executive power. An objective analysis of the past two and a half years would show that early concerns of a “new Putinism” in Hungary were overstated, but Orbán’s public pronouncements about the inability of parliamentary democracy to cope with periods of international turbulence echo unmistakably the nation’s interwar authoritarian past.

Less well chronicled than Hungary has been the anemic state of democracy in many other parts of Central Europe, where the latest indices show signs of steady backsliding.Most worrying are the late EU entrants Romania and Bulgaria; entrenched corruption, cronyism and government interference in the judiciary and media have brought both countries into the range of “semi-consolidated” democracies. But even the Central European core is not immune. Recent Czech elections were marred by a campaign of explicit xenophobia, with the nation’s most senior political figures invoking the nation’s ethnic divides of the 1930s. …………

In Central Europe, democracy as an idea is not in danger; in most cases, the major arteries of political freedom at both the individual and governmental levels are open and functioning. But the stresses on these systems are clearly growing, from internal sources but also because of the weakening of external drivers of reform. Coming at a moment when the integrative influences of both the European Union and NATO are at their lowest ebbs since the Cold War, these tests, one can reasonably assume, will intensify, and illiberal temptations will grow more acute than the optimists of the 1990s assumed they could.

Russian Influence and the New Eastern Frontier

The role of Russia in regional politics has increased the pressure on Central European democracy. The vacuum created by the dual crisis of Atlanticism and European integration is being readily filled by corrupt politics and subversive Russian activities, which often work in tandem. To an extent largely unrecognized in Washington, Russian influence is gaining a commanding lead in the business, energy and intelligence realms across the region…………

 Further east, in the countries of the post-Soviet space, the effort to extend Western democratic norms and strategic influence has stalled. ….Whatever benefits the U.S.-Russia “reset” may have produced in strategic relations, it did not produce good results for democracy in the post-Soviet space. By appearing to prioritize gains in arms control over longstanding U.S. pressure for reform on the ground, the Obama Administration’s body language toward Moscow chilled the region’s already-embattled anti-authoritarian dissident communities. 

Meanwhile, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, with its emphasis on “more for more” in trade, aid and exchange, has also failed to incentivize reform. Given the diminishing financial and political support in Berlin and other West European capitals, it is doubtful the EaP will prove an effective template for Western engagement in the east. In strategic terms, the level of Russian influence in countries like Belarus and even Ukraine gives these countries at best “dual-use” foreign policies. The net effect of these changes has been to create a de facto reactivated geopolitical frontier along the European Union’s eastern border.

Rather than a continued eastward march of democracy or even a gray zone where a contest for influence can still be waged, the reality is increasingly that of a space devoid of democratic influence and, more often than not, one of active westward conduits funneling corruption, dependency and subversion into the Central European core.

New strategy

The United States should therefore work with its European allies to devise a new strategy for strengthening the West’s strategic, economic and values-based presence in this region. In light of present budgetary constraints, this strategy will have to use creativity where it is short on cash.

Return to America’s original strategic purpose: America’s long-term aim in Central Europe has always been the same: to ensure geopolitical pluralism in the space between Germany and Russia. Its interest has been to promote a grouping of states with independent foreign policies, non-volatile economies and stable, democratic governments in order to guard against the return of the destructive twins of nationalism and geopolitics. 

Keep pushing on democracy, but regain credibility first: As it strengthens the infrastructure of its power in Central Europe, the United States should also hone the attractiveness of Western democratic norms. ….Only by demonstrating staying power can Washington expect to be heard when it criticizes others on democracy. The credibility of American staying power has been depleted, and it now needs to be replenished. President Obama should travel to Warsaw in 2014 (perhaps as a layover during his trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democratic revolutions, which began in Poland.

Develop a “long game” for winning influence in the post-Soviet space: Bad as things are in Belarus and Ukraine, they will only worsen if the drift in U.S. and European policy continues. Both sides of the Atlantic now need to develop a sober picture of reality and a joint plan for leveraging what few advantages are left to them. That joint plan should combine elements of both the pre-2008 enlargement agenda and the increasingly defunct Eastern Partnership program. Half measures have failed to achieve results; only a robust program has a chance to succeed. 

That program should include: targeting the next generation of leaders (a more efficient use of limited political capital that creates a new vector of influence on current, undemocratic elites); synchronizing U.S.-EU messaging on democracy and rule of law (speaking with one voice has proven effective in Belarus); coordinating U.S.-EU public diplomacy outreach to deepen the penetration of Western electronic media and expand the use of people-to-people exchanges among journalists, civil servants, scholars, students and mid-level officials; and incentivizing national governments to allow Western businesses to thrive (commercial linkages exist, but taxes, regulations and corruption are blocking opportunities to modernize regional economies).


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Mapping path to sustainable political parties in the Arab world


Dozens of new political parties have emerged in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia since the start of the Arab uprisings, says Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment. While many of these forces played an active role in overturning old orders, they have struggled to develop coherent identities, establish effective support networks, and build sustainable constituencies, he writes in a new analysis.

To participate effectively in the political process, new, largely secular parties must overcome their institutional challenges and improve their long-term capacity to deliver what the people need. The fate of these emerging parties will play an outsized role in determining the success of the political transitions taking place in the Arab region.

The fall of ruling regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia opened the floodgates of political participation. Parties proliferated as people seized the opportunity to organize politically and make their voices heard in the democratic process. In Egypt, more than 60 parties contested parliamentary elections. In Tunisia, the number of parties surpassed 100. And in Libya, as many as 142 new political parties registered to compete in the country’s first legislative elections.

The vast majority of these new parties failed to do more than register with the government. Doing little to establish themselves on the ground, they in effect existed only on paper. Even those parties that emerged as key players generally failed to achieve any significant electoral impact in initial parliamentary elections. Instead, older and more established organizations performed most effectively. The top performers included Islamists, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, parties that have built effective networks at the grassroots level for decades through philanthropy, social services, and promises of better governance.

Differentiating Parties in a Crowded Field

With the emergence of so many parties after the Arab uprisings, voters have faced a herculean task in trying to identify which party would best represent their interests. The problem has been made worse by the fact that many parties seem to be mirror images of each other, devoid of ideology and reliant on a small core of elite supporters. Even those parties that have adopted an ideology often appear to downplay the extent to which it defines their identity, and almost all parties have vague and underdeveloped platforms and plans.

The result is a morass of poorly distinguished political organizations that can be almost impossible for voters to tell apart. Often, parties have relied on the personalities of their founders rather than on clear programs, making them unsustainable in the long run and raising skepticism among citizens that the real aim of such parties is the personal glorification of individuals rather than the people’s well-being.

Rejecting or downplaying ideology is a strategic choice that reflects these parties’ reading of the external political environment and internal political constraints. Ideology is perceived by many as divisive and bereft of actual policy benefits, so some parties do not see the point in establishing themselves as ideological. Even parties that claim an ideological affiliation appear to temper its importance to reduce internal divisions.

Recommendations for Emerging Political Parties

  • Develop clear, detailed programs that go beyond stating what the party is against and define what it is for, addressing society’s real economic and social needs.
  • Design programs through extensive consultations with constituents rather than relying on the advice of small groups of experts.
  • Abandon dated, ideological platforms and find new ways to package solutions to the challenges of creating jobs, ensuring economic mobility, establishing equality before the law, fighting corruption, and guaranteeing fairer and wider political representation.
  • Promote educational policies that encourage pluralism, tolerance, respect for different points of view, and critical thinking.
  • Develop real connections with the people, learning from Islamist parties that have built constituencies over decades by providing health, education, and other services.
  • Define new and creative strategies to collect small but regular donations from a broad base of citizens.
  • Convince members of the business community to more actively fund emerging political parties by demonstrating that a strong, independent, and stable party system is in their interests.
  • Reduce the unsustainable emphasis on individual party leaders and personalities.
  • Encourage the consolidation of secular political parties by focusing on “big-tent” politics.


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Dark day for human rights – nearly half UNHRC not democracies


The election of egregious human rights abusers China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam to the UN Human Rights Council has dealt “a severe blow to the credibility and efficacy of a body that was supposed to improve on its discredited predecessor,” says a leading rights monitor.

“This is a black day for human rights,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental human rights group. “Today the UN sent a message that politics trumps human rights, and it let down millions of victims worldwide who look to the world body for protection.”

According to a comprehensive report by UN Watch, the new Council member states perpetrate gross and systematic human rights abuses, including massive violations of the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. They were also found to oppose UN resolutions speaking out for victims of human rights abuses in Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

Nearly half of the 2014 UNHRC membership (47%) fail to meet the minimal standards of a free democracy, notes UN Watch.

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Exiled Syrian opposition chooses interim government, wants ‘Western democracy’

The main Syrian opposition group in exile has elected an interim government to administer rebel-held areas in the country’s north in a new effort to unify the fractured movement fighting to topple the regime, Rima Abushakra writes for The Wall Street Journal:

The Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is based in Istanbul, said the government was formed in coordination with rebels fighting inside Syria. However the armed opposition hasn’t yet commented. …..After months of wrangling over positions, the choice of an interim government marks a serious attempt to assert legitimacy, order and authority over a fraying opposition.

“It could remove one hurdle to peace talks with the regime by making it easier to choose representatives to the talks,” Abushakra suggests. “It may also give the exiled opposition, often criticized for being disconnected from the fighting on the ground, a role within the country.”

Speaking about his hopes for the Geneva talks, Ahmad Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, told the BBC’s Lina Sinjab he wanted Syria to have ”a democracy like the one in the West.”

The Syrian Expert House, a group of 300 opposition representatives, and the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, recently released Syria Transition Roadmap, a detailed vision of the steps that a transitional government will have to take to restore order and rule of law, build democratic institutions, and place Syrian society on a path toward national reconciliation.

Foreign funding for the warring parties has helped sustain the conflict and transformed it into a proxy battle by regional powers, Ben Hubbard writes for The New York Times:

But the flow of private funds to rebel groups has added a wild-card factor to the war, analysts say, exacerbating divisions in the opposition and bolstering its most extreme elements. While the West has been hesitant to arm and finance the more secular forces that initially led the turn to armed rebellion, fighters have flocked to Islamist militias and in some cases rebranded themselves as jihadist because that is where the money is.

“It creates a self-sustaining dynamic that is totally independent of all the strategic and diplomatic games that are happening and being led by states,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst in the Middle East with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Prominent fund-raisers often boast of attacks by their preferred groups, which thank them with videos showing their new weapons, Hubbard adds.

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