Western Democracy Promotion vs. the Illiberal Rest? The Case of EU Democracy Promotion in the Eastern Neighborhood

Since the end of the Cold War, a number of semi-authoritarian regimes emerged in the common neighborhood of the European Union and Russia from the ruins of the Soviet Union. The main characteristics of these states is that of not being either merely democratic or authoritarian, but rather a mix of the two, they have been given different names by different authors, (illiberal democracies, conditional democracies, competitive authoritarian regimes, etc..) who tried to grasp the hybrid nature of these political entities.

Due to their position in-between authoritarianism and democracies, these regimes have long been seen as in transition towards democracy, as part of a teleological discourse that had a beginning (authoritarianism) and an end (democracy). The idea being that this transformation could be temporarily paused, but always keeping in mind that the end result would come at some point, the ideal outcome being the achievement of a democracy following the Western European standards. This transition discourse had to change after it became clear, ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that not only most of these regimes had not democratized, and in some cases they weren’t likely to do so, but an authoritarian roll-back was also possible. (Examples can be seen in the cases of Belarus.)

Having to deal with these new political entities, both democratic EU and authoritarian Russia tried (and still do) to export their political values, in the case of Europe this was done by openly supporting democratization, whereas Russia would back the authoritarian regimes in charge. At least this has been the common opinion in most of the literature about Democracy Promotion in the Eastern Neighborhood, which has presented the West (seen manly as EU and US) as trying to export democratic values while being undermined by illiberal regional actors (seen mainly as Russia). This depiction is true, but only to a limited extent.

First of all, democracy promotion in the EU is normally subordinated to the promotion of stability and security goals in its neighborhood, and it is thus disposed to “close an eye” on undemocratic shortcomings. As Youngs affirms, the European Union

routinely and even ritually claims that it sees firm support for democratization as part of its geostrategic calculus. But […] the interest is in short-term stability and predictability; longer-term political reform is supported only insofar as it can be made consistent with such objectives”.

This is also one of the factors explaining the turn in EU democracy promotion strategies from conditionality, to the looser and more flexible framework of functional cooperation in its neighborhood. (Other factors for this change in policy include the diminished credibility of membership conditionality after the Eastern Enlargement.)

Moreover, authoritarian states do not pursue an overt policy of “authoritarianism promotion”, but rather seem to react to Western policies of democratization only when these are seen as threatening the illiberal state’s existence or its geostrategic goals. In this sense, it can be seen that the goals of Russia and the EU are not that different, insofar as they privilege political stability and security in their neighborhood. Moreover, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that illiberal regional powers always intentionally promote autocracy, even though a strengthening of authoritarian rule might result from their behavior. Lastly, by promoting stability and effective government rather than democratic government, the EU helped stabilize non-democratic and corrupt regimes rather than transform them. As Börzel affirms

Incumbent elites have aligned their political survival strategies with the EU’s demand for domestic change. They fought corruption, for instance, where it helped to oust political opponents, reward political allies, deflect international criticism, and attract foreign assistance and investments.”

As noted by Risse and Babayan, for instance, the empowerment of liberal groups in a target country by Western actors, as well as the empowerment of illiberal groups by non-democratic regional actors will not suffice to obtain the desired result, as many other factors play a part.

The differential empowerment of domestic forces depends in turn on the leverage of the EU and the US powers as compared to that of illiberal regional powers in terms of credibility and commitment, legitimacy and resources. It also depends on economic and security linkages between the target state, on the one hand, and the Western powers as compared to the non-democratic regional powers, on the other. As a result, Western democracy promotion and countervailing efforts by illiberal powers may sometimes have counterintuitive results.”

Evidence suggests that the EU has indeed played a role in the democratization of some of its neighboring countries, the most notable example being the countries that gained EU membership through the Eastern Enlargement. On the other hand, there is also evidence to say that Russia actively supports illiberal actors in its neighborhood. However, when talking about democracy promotion, the complex situation of linkages and interdependence suggests that labeling the West as “the good democracy-promoter” and the Rest as autocracy exporter might be problematic as it ignores a whole series of dynamics and factors at stake.


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