Forum Focus: March 2023

Monthly news from the National Endowment for Democracy‘s International Forum for Democratic Studies on global challenges facing democracy around the world.


To mark one year since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the International Forum and the NED highlighted the war’s implications for global democratic principles and the incredible resilience that our Ukrainian civil society partners have shown.

On February 21, the Forum published a new report, Shielding Democracy: Civil Society Adaptations to Kremlin Disinformation about Ukraine. Since the beginning of the invasion, the Kremlin has intensified its malign propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. In response, Ukrainian civil society has shown great resolve, ingenuity, and success in combating these false narratives. In the report, the Forum’s Adam Fivenson, Detector Media’s Galyna Petrenko, and European Values for Security Policy’s Veronika Víchová and Andrej Poleščuk highlight the importance of deep preparation, collaborative networks across government and civil society, and the use of advanced technologies and tools to scale their response efforts. READ THE REPORT

On February 22, the Forum held a virtual event to launch the Shielding Democracy report, featuring commentary from Peter Pomerantsev, Olha Bilousenko, and report contributors Veronika Víchová and Adam Fivenson. The discussion highlighted the need for a more cohesive and confident approach to countering Kremlin-backed disinformation that employs a network of stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and ordinary citizens. WATCH HERE

Forum Senior Program Officer for Information Space—and Shielding Democracy lead contributor—Adam Fivenson published an op-ed for Just Security , and Ukrainian co-contributor Galyna Petrenko wrote an op-ed for Rest of World. Both articles explain how Ukrainian civil society’s experience might inform global action against Russian disinformation.

The Journal of Democracy marked one year since the invasion of Ukraine by spotlighting recent articles, such as Russian journalists’ response to increased censorship, the effect of anti-war protests, and how the war has galvanized public support for democracy in Ukraine.

NED’s Ukrainian partners have continued their work to support democracy and accountability despite the hardships and immense challenges of the Russian invasion. To highlight our commitment to our local partners in Ukraine, NED produced a video showcasing their work in this crucial time period.

In the latest post for the Power 3.0 blog, Roberta Braga discusses Brazil’s need for a new approach to the disinformation crisis that fueled its January 8 insurrection. While Brazil’s judiciary has taken decisive steps to curb political disinformation, stakeholders should understand the causes of the problem and the government should emphasize reconciliation over alienation. Braga writes, “Brazil has stepped up to tackle the causes and effects of its January 8 insurrection quickly. . . What comes next could determine the survival of its democracy.” READ HERE

In February’s edition of Countering Kleptocracy, Forum Senior Program Officer Melissa Aten highlighted how popular Western conceptions of African wealth have obscured a more nuanced reality, where corrupt leaders become fantastically wealthy and leave ordinary citizens destitute in places like Central Africa. Since kleptocracy is transnational in nature, wealth leaves the continent through the assistance of enablers in rule-of-law settings who ensure that the funds are difficult to trace. This practice makes it nearly impossible for the money to ever return to its source, even if political circumstances would allow it.

Countering Kleptocracy is a monthly publication from the Forum which shines a light on how transnational kleptocracy serves as a vehicle for theft, repression, and influence for political elites—and how democracies can respond. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

The Forum’s Sharp Power Research Portal catalogues over 1,000 English and foreign language research and reporting resources on authoritarian sharp power in five sectors: media and information; commerce; culture and entertainment; knowledge generation; and technology. The Portal explores how 5 authoritarian powers—China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are exerting influence in 143 countries around the world.

Recent additions include the following:

The Price of Happiness (29 December 2021, The Intercept

The UAE paid millions of dollars to popular economist Jeffrey Sachs to develop and promote new UN development statistics centered around the concept of “happiness.” The goal was to popularize metrics on which the Gulf monarchy would score highly, disregarding criticism of its human rights record.

Working the Western Hemisphere (December 2022, Brookings Institution

Russia launched a concerted Spanish-language disinformation campaign to spread false narratives about the war in Ukraine and attempted to place blame on NATO and the West. States throughout Latin America were targeted on social media by Kremlin-backed sources.

Chinese Students in UK Told to ‘Resist Distorting China’s Covid Policies’ (8 December 2022, The Guardian)

Chinese students studying in Manchester, U.K. reported threatening comments made by the Chinese consul general in response to their protests against China’s Zero Covid policies. The Chinese government is taking steps to intimidate international students and influence their behavior.

Forum Program Officer Melissa Aten moderated a conversation on kleptocratic adaptation with Matthew Page, Jodi Vittori, and Helena Wood at the Royal United Services Institute in London on March 7. Watch a recording of the event here.

During their trip to London and Brussels, Aten and Senior Director John Glenn met with journalists, civil society representatives, and policymakers in the British and European parliaments to discuss the issues raised in the Forum’s recent report, Kleptocratic Adaptation: Anticipating the Next Stage in the Battle against Transnational KleptocracyRead the report here.

Justin Daniels, assistant editor of the Journal of Democracy, argues in Foreign Policy that Putin’s war in Ukraine is aided by a support network of dictatorships in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. To respond to authoritarians’ combined struggle against democracy, democracies must come together to support it.

In another article in Foreign Policy, Dylan Myles-Primakoff, Senior Manager for Eurasia Programs at NED, argued that Putin’s war in Ukraine is fueled by repression back home in Russia. Propaganda and disinformation mask resistance from ordinary Russians, but a brutal crackdown from the Kremlin is holding the country’s war effort together.

NDI recently published a report analyzing the efficacy of anti-corruption communications campaigns. Their review highlights the effectiveness of content moderation tools. The lessons learned can help guide reformers during moments of transition on how to best design their own anti-corruption campaigns.