Jun 8, 2006

The Backlash against Democracy Assistance

Testimony of Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy
to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate

Washington D.C.

Chairman Lugar, Ranking Member Biden, and members of the Committee,

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to the Committee for the opportunity to address you on such a vital matter, and particularly to thank each of you for your commitment to the mission of the National Endowment for Democracy and for your strong support for our program over the years. Mr. Chairman, you made a personal commitment to the Endowment through your exemplary service to the NED Board during the 1990s, and we are delighted that Senator Sarbanes has continued in that tradition of active involvement in our work. We should note that Senator Coleman has become the newest member of our Board and we very much look forward to his contribution in the years ahead.

Today I want to address a serious issue that is the subject of a report that NED is releasing today. The report is entitled The Backlash against Democracy Assistance, and it was written in response to the concerns raised by Senator Lugar in a letter to us last November about reports of the growing efforts of foreign governments to impede US programs for democracy assistance.

My testimony presents, in part, a distillation of the report's main findings. Senator Lugar's letter expressed particular concern about restrictions on democracy assistance in such countries as Belarus, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and China. Subsequent developments, including legislation in Russia that imposes new restrictions on non-governmental organizations, have further highlighted this disturbing trend.

The Changing Environment

Since the inception of the National Endowment for Democracy, the environment for democracy promotion work has changed profoundly. Most developments have been positive, justifying the NED's mission, validating its approaches and facilitating continuing work in the field. These changes include:

  • a dramatic increase in the number of viable democracies, providing regional partners and improving access to previously closed states, particularly in the former Soviet bloc;
  • the collapse of any viable alternative to democracy as a legitimate political order;
  • a robust bipartisan consensus within the U.S. on the desirability and effectiveness of democracy assistance through non-governmental efforts;
  • the expansion and increasing international acceptance of democracy assistance; and
  • the growing cooperation among democracies in providing such assistance.

Yet certain adverse factors have arisen which, while not threatening to reverse the democratic trend, do present challenges to democracy assistance. These include:

  • the emergence of semi-authoritarian hybrid regimes characterized by superficially democratic processes that disguise and help legitimate authoritarian rule;
  • the emergence of new actors and agencies committed to undermining, countering and reversing democratic progress; and
  • new restrictive measures of a legal and extra-legal nature, specifically directed against democracy promotion groups.

The efforts of foreign governments to impede democracy assistance - from legal constraints on NGOs to extra-legal forms of harassment - have intensified and now seriously impede democracy assistance in a number of states. This backlash is particularly pronounced in the former Soviet states of Eurasia as well as in China, Venezuela, Egypt and Zimbabwe. Representatives of democracy assistance NGOs have been harassed, offices closed, and staff expelled. Even more vulnerable are local grantees and project partners who have been threatened, assaulted, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

In addition to impeding democracy assistance efforts, regimes are adopting pro-active approaches, channeling funds to anti-democratic forces and using fake NGOs to frustrate genuine democratization. All of this has had a "chilling effect" on democracy assistance, intimidating some groups, and making it more difficult for them to receive and utilize international assistance and solidarity. These actions seriously threaten the ability of democrats abroad, operating peacefully and openly, to continue to work with US organizations that receive congressional funding in order to carry out their mandate.

Despite these disturbing developments, which in some cases are prompting practitioners in the field to revert to methods used in closed societies during the 1980s, democracy assistance NGOs are today active in more countries than ever before. The new climate has actually validated the mission and the non-governmental structure of the NED "family," which has proven its ability to work effectively in sensitive and repressive political climates.

Democracy assistance NGOs have long been active within a diverse range of states from closed societies to fragile or emerging democracies for which the strategies, operating procedures and funding arrangements honed over more than 20 years remain relevant and effective. The NED family in particular has extensive experience of channeling assistance to dissidents, labor unions, human rights activists and other advocates for democratic change within repressive societies.

Threats to Democracy Assistance: Context and Character

Repressive regimes have always sought to prohibit, frustrate or undermine the activities of democratic and civil society groups and individual activists. Under the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, political repression took extreme forms, including the mass arrest, incarceration and physical liquidation of opponents.

More recently, however, the "color revolutions" in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and, arguably, Kyrgyzstan, have demonstrably alarmed authoritarian governments, alerting them to the precariousness of their hybrid, pseudo-democratic regimes. The scenario of popular protests, mobilized through opposition groups and NGOs, pressuring ruling elites to surrender state power, had a chastening effect and prompted a re-assessment of strategies and "political technologies" required to maintain authoritarian rule.

It is pertinent here to raise the issue of the association of democracy assistance with regime change, a position taken by honest, if impatient, advocates of democracy as well as by more malicious critics. This misleading equation has been taken up by authoritarian rulers to deny the legitimacy of democracy assistance and to portray these efforts as an instrument of foreign policy designed to undermine US adversaries.

NED's position has always been that regime change and democracy assistance are not synonymous. Democracy assistance does not actively promote domestic policy agendas or champion opposition forces. Achieving democracy is the purpose of democracy assistance groups' efforts, and the fall or removal of a non-democratic regime does not automatically produce democracy as an outcome. The replacement of Batista by Castro or the Shah by Khomeini makes that clear.

Democracy assistance focuses not on determining short term or partisan outcomes in the sense of changing regimes or backing certain parties or candidates in elections. The outcomes we work toward are those of strengthening democracy, safeguarding human rights and enhancing democratic institutions, practices and culture. So our objective is not regime change per se. To be sure, ending a dictatorship can provide the space and opportunity for people to build democracy, but that is a long-term and arduous task, entailing a process of work, learning, and the cultivation of civic values and institutions of governance that enable pluralist societies to resolve differences through peaceful means. Ukraine's Orange Revolution serves as a powerful reminder that democracy promotion is a process, not an event. NED and its institutes actively invested resources in sustaining democratic and civil society groups for 15 years prior to the democratic breakthrough, demonstrating the need for a long-term approach. In addition, such breakthroughs confirm the benefits of a "venture capital" approach whereby "seed funding" is provided to democratic and civil society groups in countries and contexts that initially appear unpromising for democratic change. Still, it is important to note that the offensive against democratization, and particularly against forms of internationally-funded democracy assistance, predates the color revolutions.

Ominously, there is growing evidence of collusion and collaboration on the part of authoritarian regimes seeking to undermine democracy assistance and independent civil society groups. We see this in the marked similarity between legislation restricting NGO activity and the sharing of Internet monitoring and censorship technologies.

In this regard, we draw the committee's attention to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprising Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This organization is emerging as the core of what has been called an "authoritarian internationale"- an axis of anti-democratic regimes across Eurasia. We note with particular concern that at its forthcoming summit on June 15, in Shanghai, the organization is expected to embrace the Islamic Republic of Iran as a new member.

Disturbing counter-trends and tendencies have emerged in part as a reaction to the success of democracy promotion in general and, in some cases, to the efficacy of the modus operandi of the NED and its institutes in particular. While such adverse factors do not threaten a reversal of the historic trend towards democracy, they do represent serious setbacks in specific countries and regions, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

Legal and Extra-Legal Measures

Of course, governments may legitimately seek to regulate foreign funding of domestic political actors and/or to regulate NGOs. Most democracies have regulations governing and, to some extent, restricting foreign funding and interference in domestic political affairs. But they exist in a context of genuine political pluralism and institutional checks and balances. Nor, of course, are they designed to suffocate or impede relatively young and still-fragile civil society organizations.

Our report details the legal restrictions being imposed on democracy assistance NGOs, drawing heavily on research undertaken by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law1, for which we are especially grateful. In practice, of course, legal constraints are supplemented and reinforced by extra-legal sanctions, ranging from surveillance and harassment to expulsion of democracy assistance NGOs.

Democracy assistance groups have experienced the following legal and extra-legal constraints:

  1. Restrictions on the right to associate and freedom to form NGOs: In China and Vietnam, NGO operations are strictly monitored and controlled, and subject to arbitrary interference by the authorities.
  2. Impediments to registration and denial of legal status: In Belarus, NGOs have waited over a year only to be denied registration without explanation. Russia's NGO law requires foreign and de facto - domestic NGOs to re-register with a state agency which will examine their activities before determining whether they can continue operations.
  3. Restrictions on foreign funding and domestic financing: In Venezuela, the Chavez regime is prosecuting civil society activists from Sumate, a voter education NGO, on charges of "conspiracy" resulting from a NED grant to promote education on electoral rights prior to the 2004 recall referendum.
  4. Ongoing threats through use of discretionary power: Some regimes, as in Egypt, retain discretionary powers to shut down civil society groups, keeping NGOs in a political limbo in which they are apparently tolerated but remain vulnerable to arbitrary termination.
  5. Restrictions on political activities: Governments consistently equate democracy assistance with oppositional activity, "regime change" or political subversion. Zimbabwe denies registration to groups receiving foreign funding for "promotion and protection of human rights and political governance issues."
  6. Arbitrary interference in NGO internal affairs: In China, civil society groups are frequently impeded and harassed by bureaucratic red tape, visits by the tax inspectorate, and other below-the-radar tactics.
  7. Establishment of "parallel" organizations or ersatz NGOs: Repressive governments have sought to undermine the NGO sector by establishing captive NGOs, or Government-Organized NGOs (GONGOs), as in Tunisia, where state-sponsored GONGOs monitor the activities of independent NGOs.
  8. Harassment, prosecution and deportation of civil society activists: Individuals engaged in certain NGO activities can be held criminally liable and fined or imprisoned. In Uzbekistan, approximately 200 domestic nonprofit organizations have been closed.

Implications for Democracy Assistance Groups

The impact of the above measures on democracy assistance is, to use a phrase frequently used by respondents, one of a "chilling effect", with some democratic activists and groups deterred and intimidated from engaging with US, European and other sources of democracy assistance and solidarity. While programs often continue in the face of repressive actions, partners and grantees nevertheless become more cautious, circumspect and wary of adopting a high profile. In some countries, for example, NED grantees have asked program officers not to visit them for fear of drawing the attention of the authorities. In other instances, prospective program partners or grantees have suggested that while they need external assistance and are willing to work with or accept grants from democracy promotion groups, the risks are too great to do so.

Yet these instances are relatively rare and practitioners in the field are not encountering obstacles qualitatively different from challenges previously experienced (and generally overcome) in closed or authoritarian societies. What does seem to be different and problematic is, first, the emergence of a twilight zone of uncertainty in which programs are prone to arbitrary interference or cancellation; and, second, the growing prevalence of low-intensity harassment, including arbitrary tax inspections, onerous reporting requirements, and ostentatious surveillance by security services.

The new repressive climate in certain states has in fact highlighted the benefits of non-governmental and civil society-based approaches. Maintaining and highlighting independence from government, such initiatives demonstrate that democracy promotion is generally most effective when undertaken by non-governmental organizations, particularly in regions such as the Middle East and Central Asia where official US support is sometimes shunned.

Unlike official government agencies often constrained by diplomatic or security considerations, democracy promotion NGOs, operating openly but largely below the radar screen, are able to avoid compromising the integrity and efficacy of programs. Groups like the NED are able to engage and fund unlicensed organizations that tend to undertake cutting edge programs but cannot ordinarily access official funds. Democracy promotion NGOs are not constrained by the diplomatic considerations that affect governmental initiatives.

Non-governmental groups have a greater facility in adapting flexibly and swiftly to deteriorating or repressive conditions. When democracy assistance aid is primarily channeled through official conduits, using bilateral agreements, its impact and effectiveness are blunted. In some regimes, governmental programs' reliance on the approval of host-country authorities virtually guarantees such programs will be compromised.

Indeed, the consensus on the desirability and legitimacy of democracy promotion and civil society-oriented approaches in particular now extends beyond the United States. The advantages of a non-governmental approach are informing and inspiring current efforts to restructure the European Union's work in this field, while leading members of the European Parliament have been campaigning for a "European NED".

The Response of Democracy Assistance Groups

Democracy assistance groups have in some circumstances been forced to change their modus operandi and adapt practices they have previously employed in formerly or currently closed societies. Such efforts include financing in partnership with non-American groups, running trainings and other programs in adjacent territories, and channeling support through exile groups.

Different contexts demand different responses, but democracy assistance NGOs have always worked within a diverse range of situations and states - closed societies, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian or hybrid regimes, and fragile or emerging democracies for which the strategies, operating procedures and funding arrangements honed over more than 20 years remain relevant and effective.

The NED has extensive experience of channeling aid and assistance to dissidents, labor unions, intellectual and civic groups, and other agencies for democratic change. Many of these initiatives take advantage of the internet and other forms of communication that were unavailable to democratic activists in the communist bloc only two decades ago.

New technologies and forms of communication, including the internet, e-mail, cellular and satellite phone technologies, have dramatically improved the provision of information and facilitated innovative funding of democrats in closed, authoritarian or backsliding societies. They have enhanced contacts and coordination between actors democracy promotion groups, donors, funders, grantees, and project partners. Thus, while new restrictions undoubtedly impede or at least complicate the provision of democracy assistance, in other respects conditions have actually improved.

Democracy assistance groups have also been innovative in response to new challenges, including:

  • improving communication and coordination between civil society groups in the field, and developing common responses and strategies in the face of new restrictions;
  • engaging reform-minded elements within state bureaucracies in hybrid or semi-authoritarian regimes where back-sliding is an ever-present possibility;
  • engaging activists from new democracies to work in countries where their personal experience has great resonance, generalizes best practice, and helps puncture the myth that democracy promotion is an attempt by the US to impose democracy; and
  • promoting multilateral approaches that help reduce the "Made in USA" profile of democracy assistance and also leverage additional resources.

Suggested Responses for Congressional Action

It is worth recalling that the backlash against democracy promotion inadvertently acts as a reminder that this is not an uncontested field or a one-way process and that it is the success of our efforts that has prompted the current reaction. Yet the evidence of democracy assistance groups' resourcefulness and adaptability, allied with the remarkable resilience and application of grass-roots democratic activists, provide strong grounds for cautious optimism that these challenges will be overcome. In this process, the support of the US Congress will be a significant factor.

Consequently, in response to the new backlash, Congress should:

  • ensure that adequate funds for democracy assistance are appropriated, and be wary of rewarding regimes for ostensibly democratic but cosmetic change;
  • urge the Administration to issue with other members of the G8 a memorandum raising concerns over Russia's democratic retrenchment;
  • promote a rigorous policy of linkage, by associating a state's treatment of democrats and civil society groups to the political and economic dimensions of interstate relations, including: tightening eligibility criteria for membership of international associations of democracies; and making foreign assistance and trade benefits conditional on democratic performance; and
  • encourage the Administration, working through the Community of Democracies, to gain acceptance of democracy promotion as a normative practice within the international system. The Community in turn should reaffirm and further elaborate its founding Warsaw Declaration, which endorsed democracy promotion, and to seek approval for the Declaration from governments, parliaments, regional forums and global institutions, including the United Nations.

Thank you.