On July 26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Renewing the Promise of Democratic Transitions.” This briefing followed a series of roundtable discussions and other events earlier in the year relating to this region, demonstrating the Helsinki Commission’s interest in Central and Eastern Europe.
Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law for the U.S. Helsinki Commission, welcomed panelists Andrew Wilson, the Managing Director of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE); Peter Goliaš, Director of the Institute for Economic and Social Reforms in Slovakia; András Lőke, Chair of Transparency International in Hungary; and Marek Tatała, Vice-President of the Civil Development Forum in Poland. Jan Surotchak, Regional Director for Europe at the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Jonathan Katz, Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) added Washington policy perspectives. The discussion was moderated by Martina Hrvolova, Central Europe and the Balkans Program Officer at CIPE.
The panelists provided a background on democracy in the regional context, as well as on the specific case studies of Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
Andrew Wilson observed that new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe face serious stresses that raise questions about the resilience of their democratic transitions and threaten to undo the remarkable progress the countries made during the last three decades. He argued that the problems in the region do not stem from the failure of democracy, but rather a failure to more actively pursue its consolidation.
Peter Goliaš offered a brief overview of the current state of democracy in Slovakia. He described the findings of a recent public opinion poll that paint a very bleak picture of how Slovakians see the current state of democracy in their country. He argued that a main reason for people’s dissatisfaction with democracy has been the perception that politicians do not work in the public’s interest, but in the interest of the oligarchs. He projected that current political trends will lead to the continued slow deterioration of Slovak democracy. To stop this deterioration, Goliaš proposed several short- and long-term measures that he believes would strengthen the rule of law and civil society in Slovakia.
András Lőke cited the reports of several influential NGOs to describe the current state of Hungarian democracy. While both Freedom House and Transparency International still give moderate scores to Hungary on the level of freedom and corruption, Hungary is trending downward on every indicator that were examined. Lőke argued that the most telling figures were found in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which ranked Hungary very poorly based on an assessment of the rule of law and the level of corruption. After identifying the challenges facing Hungary today, Lőke outlined a list of solutions to these problems that would ultimately enable civil society to reassert its role in maintaining transparency and accountability in governance, and generally increase the crucial engagement of civil society in public affairs.
Marek Tatała assessed the state of democracy in Poland, arguing that while the country remains a democracy, its current political leadership is weakening rather than strengthening its democratic development. Tatała observed that laws on the constitutional tribunal and on the organization of courts, and the rapid nature of the legislative process, have been harmful to the rule of law in Poland. He underlined the need for a higher level of engagement of the business community in public affairs, and a better quality of education that is more focused on civic engagement and economic literacy.
Following up on the three country case studies, Jan Surotchak presented the findings of a recent poll conducted as part of IRI’s Beacon Project. The findings revealed a number of disturbing trends in Central and Eastern Europe, including waning support for core transatlantic institutions; tensions over the nature of European identity; and a deep discontent with socioeconomic challenges in the region. Most importantly, the study confirmed that there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic disparities in these countries and their vulnerabilities to Russian influence.
Finally, Jonathan Katz emphasized the need to increase the United States’ bilateral and joint diplomatic engagement and development assistance efforts in the region to support continued democratic and economic transition. More specifically, Katz presented four core strategies that he argues are needed, which included the establishment of joint US-EU mechanisms to strengthen development cooperation and coordination in the entire OSCE region.
The panelists agreed that any external development assistance should primarily support the work of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe, with a special focus on communication campaigns. Particular emphasis should be given to the improvement of the education system with a focus on promoting discussions with students. Marek Tatała also argued that given the fairly strong ties of these countries’ leaders with the United States, a stronger voice from the current US Administration regarding negative developments in Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland would be also welcome and effective.
With regard to action from Congress, panelists argued that resources for development assistance could come in the form of a congressional authorization bill. Panelists also noted that to be effective, any external development fund that targets NGOs or the civil society must be monitored by donors to avoid corruption. Panelists observed that the Congress could play a particularly important role in providing oversight of such assistance programs and making sure that their spending follow very strict guidelines.