External Perspectives on Post-Soviet Democratization: EU Democracy Promotion and the Russian Challenge

Sept. 20, 2010, 2 p.m.

In the last two decades we have become increasingly aware of the “external dimension” of democratization. In particular, the influences of external actors – both those who support a democratic development and those who act against it – have attracted great attention from both scholars and policy-makers.  One region where such apparently oppositely directed influences clash is the post-Soviet area. The ongoing battle between the EU and Russia over the political development of the former Soviet republics situated in-between the two great powers (here I focus on Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the three Caucasian states) is an illustrative example of exactly such dynamics. In what follows, I will try to assess the strength of these two external actors’ influence capacity. Will the European Union be capable of pushing the republics towards political and economic reforms? Or do the Russian activities in the area “crowd out” these efforts, and instead set authoritarianism on a steady march? Basically, I argue that Russia does pose a serious challenge for European democracy promotion – but only in the short run. In the longer run, Russia’s power-politics approach is simply not durable and will only erode its dominant position in the area. The EU, on the contrary, by following a more legitimate course in its foreign policy actions and by tying access to the market of the Schengen area (the importance of which is increasing rapidly for the post-Soviet area) to political reforms, holds strong cards for effectively influencing the future political development of the region.

At first sight, though, the prospects for a democratic development of the region seem bleak. The hope ignited by the so-called "color revolutions" that swept across the post-Soviet territory have definitively fizzled out. Lukashenka has successfully tamed the democratic opposition in Belarus; Ukraine is in economic dire straits and political power once again seems to be concentrating; Georgia is still licking its wounds after the Russian invasion; and the winds of change simply keep on avoiding the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Only Moldova has shown positive signs lately, but the country is still marred by the instable political, economic, and even territorial situation in the country. Thus, the democratic decline seems to be symptomatic of almost the entire region. However, these discouraging trends do not, necessarily, signify the failure of European democracy promotion. Neither do they indicate that Russia has succeeded in definitively shoring off its neighborhood against the model of Western liberal democracy.

To begin with the former, the EU's formal relations with the post-Soviet republics are characterized, primarily, by the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP forms a bilateral track, through which the EU offers greater economic and political integration in exchange for fulfillment of various standards articulated in the so-called Action Plans and monitored through individual Progress Reports. This approach unmistakably resembles the actual enlargement procedure where the EU on the basis of similar goal-setting and evaluation is capable of pushing the candidates towards political, economic, and administrative reforms.

But, is the ENP just as effective as the enlargement process? At first sight, a replication of this great foreign policy success appears unlikely due to the simple fact that the size of the carrot that dangles in front of the post-Soviet republics is significantly smaller, than what countries with a membership perspective are offered. The ability of the EU to push forward reforms in target countries is basically rooted in two factors. First, the Union has to control access to something that the countries really strive for – namely, membership of the community. But for the six post-Soviet countries, membership is not on the table, not even in the distant future. Nonetheless, the ENP still offers great economic and political opportunities along with an empirically (in the CEE and the Balkans) tested roadmap for how best to implement comprehensive reform-packages that secure progress and development. The second factor evolves from the simple fact that it is extremely costly to be situated on the wrong side of the Union border (because of restricted market access). This creates a natural inducement to try to lower these costs by adapting political, economic, and administrative EU-standards. So, even though, the benefits that the ENP offers are considerable lower than what candidate countries are offered, the costs are more or less the same.

Turning to the other great power in the region – Russia – it is clear that the approach pursued by the Kremlin is of a very different nature than the European one. Several recent studies (see, e.g., Ambrosio 2009, Tolstrup 2009) testify how Russia strongly influences the region negatively by strengthening authoritarian regimes and weakening democratizing ones. Russian active influence in the region is, primarily, based on traditional political and economic hard power – target states are sought influenced by either punishing governments (inflicting extra costs in the form of, e.g., energy cut-offs or trade-embargoes) or by buying them off (offering extra benefits like cheap energy and political support).

So, where Russia mainly uses the stick or deliver goods ex ante to get what it wants, the actions of the EU, on the contrary, work ex post – by either withdrawing earned benefits or supplying new benefits. Thus, the active influence of the European Union is generally conducted in a less covert, aggressive, and arbitrary manner. Rather, it is characterized by a wait-and-see, persuasive, rule-based, and therefore, more legitimate approach. This more legitimate approach naturally spills over into a substantial amount of soft power. Russia, in contrast, is desperately short on soft power. True, the Russian regime is attractive for authoritarian incumbents, who wish to consolidate power and find a safe haven that can insulate them from Western pressure for democratic reforms. But I will argue that this pull-factor is more spurred by a feeling of necessity (striving to secure regime-survival) than one of genuine attraction. Not even a declared Russophile like President Lukashenka in Belarus feels drawn towards integrating further with Russia, if he can avoid doing so. Thus, the Russian pull-factor is counterweighted by a strong fear among most of the post-Soviet republics that Russia only seeks to rebuild its former dominant role in the area.

So where does all this leave us? Does Russia’s negative influence seriously challenge European efforts to promote democracy in the post-Soviet region? In my interpretation, the negative influence of Russia is powerful, but suffers from inherent weaknesses. In the short run the European Union’s democracy promotion efforts are seriously challenged by the negative Russian influence. In non-authoritarian republics European support will be obstructed by Russia’s destabilizing measures, and in more authoritarian republics European aspirations will prove relatively fruitless because Russia’s influence is upholding and strengthening the coercive state capacity of the ruling elites. In the longer run, however, two factors stack the deck in favor of the EU.

First, the current Russian foreign policy is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is attractive for authoritarian elites who wish to centralize and concentrate power in their own hands. But, on the other hand, it also produces a growing fear of domination among all of the post-Soviet republics’ elites and populations. The non-authoritarian governments are already seeking the EU’s protection to minimize the Russian pressure, and the authoritarian countries are slowly beginning to desperately counterbalance the Russian dominance by partly turning to the West. So even though the EU does not perform democratic miracles, it holds strong cards for the future due to its higher degree of legitimacy, credibility, and more multifaceted soft-power approach.

Secondly, the ENP should not (as it often is) be discarded as useless just because it is not the panacea that no one in their right minds could have expected it to be. It is a strong tool, but the premise for it to work is that either the population or the elites in target countries are actively pursuing a reformist path. That is, if neither the populations in the area, nor the elites find the goals set forth by the EU worth pursuing, then the Union becomes fairly powerless. But this demand now finally seems to be evolving, albeit slowly. The popular revolutions have, along with the Eastern enlargement in 2004 and 2007, contributed to putting EU-integration on the agenda among both the people and the elites in these republics. At the same time, the enlargement has significantly raised the costs of remaining outside the Union. These circumstances, in combination with the above-mentioned fear of Russian dominance, are exactly, what is needed for the EU to exert its influence. Only when elites and populations in the post-Soviet republics start perceiving the European model as one to strive for, will the tools of EU democracy promotion turn fully effective.

So, there is reason to be, what could be framed as, a long-term optimist. Although the color revolutions could not meet the expectation of a sudden and rapid democratization of the post-Soviet area, the region seems to be slowly changing. The ENP may not work miracles, but it is far from the toothless paper tiger it has gained reputation of being. And in the longer run it will definitely prove much more powerful and sustainable than the Russian approach. So, even if it may take another decade to get there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the post-Soviet republics.

Jakob Tolstrup is a PhD-fellow at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University in Denmark. He holds a master in political science and Russian language and has been working as an intern for a Danish MEP in the European Parliament. Most recently he has been attached to the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University as a visiting scholar.

Contact: tolstrup@ps.au.dk

Ambrosio, T. 2009, Authoritarian Backlash: Russian Resistance to Democratization in the Former Soviet Union, Ashgate, Farnham, England.
Tolstrup, J. 2009, “Studying a Negative External Actor: Russia's Management of Stability and Instability in the 'Near Abroad' ”, Democratization, vol. 16, no. 5, pp. 922-44.

comments powered by Disqus