Since 1989 liberal reformers have helped bring 10 Eastern bloc countries into the EU. Now comes the hard part.

This year found the Euro-Atlantic community not only busy with pressing economic and political issues but also commemorating several important milestones - the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, the 60th anniversary of NATO's founding, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This last opened space for unprecedented changes in the former Soviet bloc.

Two decades on, we have entered a complicated period of economic crisis, security fears, and raised expectations connected with changes in the White House and European institutions. There is a natural impulse to look back, analyze the state of affairs, and think about new strategies.

Post-communist Europe has been a laboratory for methods to promote democracy, and Western assistance has contributed to the region's remarkable socio-political transformation. But 2009 is not 1989, and today the issue requires serious rethinking.

DEMOCRATIC BREAKTHROUGHS

In the aftermath of the annus mirabilis of 1989, "going back to Europe" was a key goal for the oppressed populations of numerous countries. Western governments, political parties, educational and research institutions, churches, media, grant-making foundations, nongovernmental and voluntary organizations, and individuals from all walks of life responded with aid and expertise. New strategies for nurturing democracy were devised.

This first post-Cold War "golden decade" was characterized by spontaneity, improvisation, enthusiasm, and a deep belief in the European project. The Euro-Atlantic family shared a common vision of an ever-larger union built on democratic values, social justice, and economic prosperity. American and European policy and donor communities generally acted in harmony; their assistance efforts resonated with local populations and were not challenged by serious political, ideological, or technical difficulties. By 1996 10 of these states had signed EU association agreements, which became a driving force for modernization and profound reforms.

Few then doubted the transformational power of the EU. The road to democracy and the free market was bumpier than many expected, but democracy assistance, realized through newborn political and non-state actors, was viewed as a fully legitimate part of the process. When national democratic deficits emerged - in Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar, for example - the EU and the United States used conditionality, diplomatic pressure, and direct assistance to democratic forces to overcome them.

For the Western Balkans and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the post-1989 transition became associated with serious hardship. Quality of life deteriorated in these sub-regions, and ethnically motivated civil wars pushed some states out of the integration mainstream. Boris Yeltsin's Russia, economically and politically weak, was consumed with its own affairs. Western actors became mired in more complicated tasks - overcoming a more deeply rooted communist legacy, dealing with wars and humanitarian emergencies.

The events of 1999 illustrated the dichotomy. In March of that year, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO, an event Vaclav Havel said marked "the real and definitive end" of divided Europe. That same month, NATO intervened to address the Kosovo catastrophe created by Slobodan Milosevic.

The following year, the brave actions of Serbia's civil society and democratic opposition led to Milosevic's peaceful ouster. It seemed a powerful signal that people's desire to build open societies and join the European family was greater than the power of skilled nationalist leaders, and that political will and well-designed Western assistance could contribute to change even in very complicated situations.

THE SECOND DECADE

The entry of the "CEE 10" ex-communist states into the EU in 2004 and 2006 and the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 represented triumphs of democracy assistance. But the past decade also brought unforeseen political, security, and economic complications that weakened the clarity and self-confidence of those promoting liberal democracy and free markets, fueling hesitation and growing opposition to further integration.

Emanating from the shock waves of the 11 September attacks, the Bush administration's "war on terror" and Iraq invasion drove a deep wedge into the Euro-Atlantic alliance and undermined the United States' credibility as the chief player in the field of democracy promotion. Meanwhile, an energized Russia reasserted itself, and the EU entered a period of enlargement fatigue and prolonged argument over internal reform.

All this, and the global economic crisis that capped the decade, sapped the momentum of integration as it was reaching the Western Balkans and the "Eastern neighborhood" (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), terrain made far thornier by weak democratic institutions, entrenched corruption, organized crime, and widespread poverty.

In the early years of this decade, the democracy-assistance community was still confident. "Democracy export" from Central European and Baltic states to the more complex Balkans and Eastern Europe was built into Western strategies. Support to politically active civic groups and various NGOs, pro-democratic and pro-European politicians, and independent media, and a focus on ensuring free and fair elections led to successes like that in Serbia. But the conditions for democracy promotion changed dramatically in the second half of the decade, particularly in the post-Soviet countries.

EU hesitancy and drift soured many in these countries on integration, while Russia's economic might and bolder rhetoric encouraged states on its borders to look east rather than west for support. The sudden successes of the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine prompted authoritarian leaders in neighboring states to crack down on NGOs, foreign organizations, and domestic media and political opposition. A perceptible backlash against the liberal-democratic model began to grow, especially as Georgia's and Ukraine's leaders lost their reformist sheen. The discussion now is less about democracy and human rights than about energy, security, and financial stability.

CHALLENGES TO COME

Today, it is clear that Western democracy assistance is in decline and will be seriously challenged in the years to come. The European project and its vision are associated with questions, not answers. The many studies and conferences on democracy assistance in the last two years have tended to dwell on weaknesses rather than seek strategies that might bring results. Just as we did 20 years ago, we are facing an unfamiliar situation.

Until the trans-Atlantic community overcomes its own crises, of course, it can hardly focus on matching past successes in promoting democracy. Beyond that, the Obama administration, the new EU leadership, and the member states will face a test - whether, in spite of our difficulties, we will stay open and continue to share our values and resources with our neighbors.

I believe the past 20 years provide several lessons worth considering as we think about the challenges ahead.

First, there must be symmetry in understanding and will between aid providers and recipient countries. Democracy assistance works best when it responds to the needs of local reformers and when all parties are open and aware about why the aid is coming and what it is for.

Too often, particularly in countries where full membership in European institutions is seen as far off, if not impossible, democracy assistance is viewed as an abstract exercise. Where the power of conditionality is missing, special effort must be paid to developing arguments and methodologies that resonate locally. Approaches that worked in the CEE 10 - support to civil-society organizations, a focus on free elections - can't be automatically replicated or exported.

In countries like Belarus (whose regime refuses foreign governments' and private groups' democracy-promotion programs) and Azerbaijan (where an authoritarian government has provided reasonable security and economic growth), there are limits to how much can be done with traditional, broadly based Euro-Atlantic assistance. The answer might lie more with the kind of help offered to dissidents and human-rights activists prevalent before 1989.

Second, style matters. Democracy assistance touches sensitive political and psychological nerves. Overlooking public sentiment and specifically national concerns, or relying on excessive criticism and pressure, can jeopardize success.

Many of the states that emerged from the fall of communism hardly existed as such before. Nation-building is often a higher priority than democracy-building, and this plays into the hands of skillful populists. When we want to support pro-democratic forces in transitional countries, we need to keep in mind that they - not donor agencies or their governments - are the agents of change, best positioned to develop strategies of change. They are often risking their future, even their lives, in the struggle for dignity and justice at home.

The timetable for this process differs in each country. An impatient or officious donor, policymaker, or "democracy officer" can cause serious problems and erode people's belief that democracy assistance is genuine.

I fear that many American and European institutions that were created to promote democracy and freedom, and which did so quite well in the last two decades, will have serious legitimacy and operational problems in the coming years. Especially those that don't take into account the fundamental changes in the international arena, don't take seriously the image problem democracy assistance faces in some places, and are not ready to change their modus operandi.

Third, sincerity matters, in deed as well as word. Geographic proximity, shared history, and external conditions made it relatively easy to anchor the CEE 10 in the West. It was not hard to convince policymakers and the public in those countries that the United States and the EU genuinely wished to bring them into a community of shared values.

The situation today is not so black and white, and U.S. and EU interests are not always so easy to decode. Economic and security issues, energy resources, and other strategic interests connected with these countries present moral dilemmas, and we have to compromise more than before.

On one hand, we are giving support to pro-democratic forces, modern administration, protection of human rights, independent media, and good governance. On the other hand, people in these countries, including democracy activists, see how well-paid Western experts or media moguls help autocratic politicians improve their image and win elections; how Eastern oligarchs burnish their names funding Western NGOs; how some Western policymakers close their eyes to authoritarianism if practiced in energy-rich states. In this context, the trans-Atlantic community needs to rethink how it deals with the democratic deficits in many of these countries.

Finally, democracy assistance and democracy-building are human endeavors, difficult to communicate in analytical language. Luckily, there are many people from both East and West who had the privilege and good fortune to witness miracles and experience how an unstoppable human spirit seeking truth, equality, and justice can overcome fear, apathy, and mistrust.

Due in large part to this spiritual component, some of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe have built Euro-compatible homes. Others still struggle to overcome the legacies of past or present strife. In an increasingly complex and anxious multipolar world, we must get past our belief in the dominance of technical and material solutions.

Pavol Demes is the German Marshall Fund's director for Central and Eastern Europe and an ECFR council member. This article is adapted from a paper written for the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

This piece was first published by Transitions Online on 14 October 2009.  

Read more on: ECFR Council, Human Rights, Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.