Title

Democracy in Central & Eastern Europe

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
2:00pm
Capitol Visitors Center, Room SVC-215
Washington, DC
United States
Renewing the Promise of Democratic Transitions
Official Transcript: 
Moderator(s): 
Name: 
Erika Schlager
Title Text: 
Counsel for International Law
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Martina Hrvolova
Title Text: 
Program Officer, Central Europe and the Balkans
Body: 
Center for International Private Enterprise
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Andrew Wilson
Title: 
Managing Director
Body: 
Center for International Private Enterprise
Statement: 
Name: 
Peter Golias
Title: 
Director
Body: 
Institute for Economic and Social Reforms, Slovakia
Statement: 
Name: 
Andras Loke
Title: 
Chair
Body: 
Transparency International, Hungary
Statement: 
Name: 
Marek Tatala
Title: 
Vice-President
Body: 
Civil Development Forum, Poland
Statement: 
Name: 
Jan Surotchak
Title: 
Regional Director for Europe
Body: 
International Republican Institute
Name: 
Jonathan Katz
Title: 
Senior Resident Fellow
Body: 
German Marshall Fund

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.

Relevant countries: 
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    Mr. Speaker, I am alarmed by recent violence in Slovakia that may be part of a larger pattern of politically motivated violence. During the weekend of May 4-5, a device that may have been a hand-grenade exploded in front of the home of Bela Bugar. Mr. Bugar is not only a member of the Hungarian minority's opposition coalition, he is also, according to opinion polls, its most popular member. Shortly before that incident, Robert Remias, a former policeman who has been questioned in connection with the kidnaping of President Michal Kovac's son last year, died when his propane-fueled BMW exploded. Although it is not yet certain who is responsible for these acts, it is clear that violence coincides with politics in Slovakia at a suspiciously high rate. I also recall, for example, that Frantisek Miklosko, the opposition leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, was assaulted by unknown attackers near his home last August; Peter Toth, a journalist investigating the Kovac case, has also been assaulted; last April, a bomb went off in the car of Arpad Matejka, a member of the Prime Minister's party. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, is no stranger to Slovakia. We were a close observer of developments there well before the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1992 and have issued two major reports on that country. Since last summer, I have been joined twice by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the Commissions' cochairman, and the Commission's ranking minority members, Representative Steny H. Hoyer and Senator Frank Lautenberg, in sending letters to Slovak Ambassador Lichardus regarding continuing challenges to the democratization process in his country. Although the Commission has raised a number of serious concerns in these letters, we have, remained generally optimistic about developments in Slovakia. Last week, for example, I hosted a conference in New Jersey on business opportunities in Central Europe, where I discussed some of the positive economic changes in Slovakia that are creating new opportunities for Slovak society as a whole. I appreciate the willingness of the Slovak Parliament to consider the views of a number of international interlocutors regarding draft legislation and note the active and constructive role of the President and the Constitutional Court in guiding the passage of legislation consistent with democratic values and human rights norms. I commend Prime Minister Meciar for his decision last week to seek, in his words, a wider democratic discussion of the draft law on the protection of the Republic. Most of all, I have been greatly heartened by the increasing involvement of Slovak citizens in all areas of public life. The message sent by the most recent developments in Slovakia, therefore, is all the more discouraging. And that message is dangerous: take on a high political profile, and you are possibly a more visible--and more likely--target of violence. I welcome the May 9 statement of the Government of Slovakia condemning acts of violence and promising a thorough investigation of these matters. I believe it is particularly important that the death of Robert Remias be examined in an open and transparent manner, in a manner that makes information available to all those concerned with this case, and in a manner that will foster credibility in its results. Mr. Speaker, the Helsinki Commission will continue to follow closely developments in this case, and I expect to report further to this body as information becomes available.

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  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

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  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

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  • Report: the U.S. Helsinki Commission Delegation to Hungary, Greece, Macedonia and Croatia (Nov. 11-17,1992)

    Budapest, Hungary, was the first stop of the Helsinki Commission delegation led by Commission CoChairman Senator Dennis DeConcini to Hungary, Greece, Macedonia, and Croatia. While in Hungary, the delegation planned to discuss a variety of domestic, bilateral, and regional issues with President Arpad Goncz, Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, and other high-level Hungarian officials. Chief among them were questions regarding the ongoing crisis in the former Yugoslavia; the delegation hoped to gain perspective on the regional ramifications of the crisis, and to learn more about Hungary's needs, concerns, and recommendations. Also critical was discussion of the specter of anti-Semitism and intolerance in Hungary, as manifested by the outspoken Vice President of the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum Istvan Csurka; the delegation wished to express its strong condemnation of Csurka's divisive and exclusivist version of nationalism. Hungary's relations with the soon-to-be-independent Slovakia were also on the agenda, as well as the ongoing controversy over the Gabcikovo-Nagymoros Dam. The Commission delegation travelled to Macedonia to meet with government leaders and private citizens, including representatives of ethnic communities, with the goal of discussing questions related to Macedonia's recognition by the international community, and to observe the economic, political and social impact of the denial of that recognition to date. The delegation also wanted to examine the possibilities for violence and conflict in Macedonia due to the ongoing conflict in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina and repression in neighboring Kosovo, and to hear Macedonian insights on this conflict and repression. Related to all the above, and central to the Commission delegation's concerns, was the degree of democratic development in Macedonia, especially in regard to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The delegation travelled to Macedonia via Thessaloniki, Greece. Taking advantage of this transit, a further objective of the delegation was to hear the views of Greek officials on issues related to Macedonia, and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in general. Finally, the Commission delegation wished to visit refugees from the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina to gain information on the circumstances leading to their presence in Macedonia, as well as to observe the quality of their treatment as refugees in that country. The Commission delegation's main interest in travelling to Croatia was to examine the situation for Bosnian refugees residing there as winter approached and to hear their reports of what was happening in BosniaHerzegovina. More generally, the delegation wanted to obtain a more detailed picture of the situation in the region as a whole as the fighting raged on. This included developments within Croatia itself, such as the situation regarding displaced persons and in the United Nations Protected Areas, as well as Croatia's role in the Bosnian conflict. Finally, the delegation had an interest in seeing the newly created U.S. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit at Pleso Airport outside Zagreb.    

  • Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in an Independent Croatia

    On August 2, 1992, Croatia held elections for the position of President of the Republic as well as for seats in the House of Representatives, one of two chambers in Croatia's "Sabor," or Assembly. These were the second multi-party elections in Croatia since 1990, when alternative political parties first competed for power. They were, however, the first since Croatia proclaimed itself an independent state in 1991, and achieved international recognition as such in 1992, following the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Incumbent Franjo Tudjman easily won a first-round victory among a field of eight presidential candidates. His party, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), also won just over half of the parliamentary seats allocated in proportion to votes for the lists of 17 parties, and a very large number of the seats designated for particular electoral districts. This result allows the HDZ to form a new government alone rather than in coalition with other parties. A shift to the far right, which many feared, did not materialize. Despite a number of open questions, the election results likely reflect the legitimate choice of Croatia's voting population. At the same time, the elections demonstrated disappointingly little democratic progress in Croatia since 1990. Detracting most from the elections was the lack of serious effort by the authorities to instill confidence in the electoral system, followed by the perceived political motivation in scheduling them in August. The elections also revealed some shortcomings on the part of the opposition, including a lack of coordinated effort to ensure that they were conducted freely and fairly. Croatia has a western-oriented, well educated and sophisticated society which provide a basis for democratic government. Decades of communist rule and a fierce nationalism linked to Croatia's search for independence have, at the same time, unleashed societal trends contrary to democratic development. The context in which these elections took place was also complicated by the conflict in Croatia that began in earnest in July 1991 as militants among the alienated ethnic-Serb population of Croatia, with the encouragement of the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and the help of the Yugoslav military, demonstrated violently their opposition to the republic's independence. After severe human casualties, population displacement and destruction, the conflict generally ended in January 1992 with a U.N. negotiated ceasefire that included the deployment of U.N. protection forces on much of Croatia's territory A new constitution and growing stability argued for holding new elections. Despite opposition complaints that August was not an appropriate time for elections, President Tudjman scheduled them with the likely calculation that his party stood its best chances in a quick election before growing economic hardship and pressure for genuine democratization replaced the joys of independence and renewed peace. During the campaign period, 29 political parties fielded candidates. They faced no major difficulties in organizing rallies and distributing their literature to the public. At the same time, the Croatian media was only moderately free, with television and radio broadcasts much less so than newspapers and journals. Only toward the end of the campaign did the media seem to open up fully The stated objective in organizing the elections was to be fair and impartial to all contending parties. At the same time, the electoral procedures were not as fully satisfactory as they easily could have been, raising suspicions of an intent to manipulate the results. However, opposition political parties considered the process sufficiently fair for them to compete. They also had the opportunity to have observers present at polling stations and election commissions on election day. According to a constitutional law on the matter, Croatia's national minorities enjoy certain rights regarding their representation in governmental bodies. Ethnic Serbs, the only large minority with some 12 percent of the population, were guaranteed a greater number of seats in the new Sabor than all other minorities combined, but, unlike the smaller minorities, no elections were held in which ethnic Serbs alone could chose their representatives. This was viewed as discriminatory treatment of the Serbian minority, despite apparently small Serbian participation in the elections. Balloting on election day was orderly, despite the enormous complications caused by the conflict and questions of citizenship and voter eligibility in a newly independent country. There were few complaints in regard to the way in which the voting and counting were carried out, although several isolated problems were reported and the security of ballots cast by voters abroad was a constant concern. Despite these faults, holding elections might well have been a watershed for Croatia. Problems in that country's democratic development were given closer scrutiny, and public concerns can now shift from the recent past to future prospects. The winners could view their easy win as a mandate for continuing current policies, largely viewed as nationalistic and insufficiently democratic. However, the far right's poor performance could lessen pressure on the HDZ to show its nationalist colors and permit greater democratic development. The behavior of HDZ leaders to date favors the status quo in the short run, but domestic and international pressure could both encourage more significant democratic reform than has been seen thus far.

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