Thirty years after the collapse of the communist bloc, Europe’s transitions remain under threat. Now most countries of central, eastern and southeastern Europe are experiencing a democratic decline that began a decade ago. Rising polarization, pervasive corruption, and weakened rule of law point to the deterioration of democratic processes and political institutions.
Public dissatisfaction with the fairness, pace, and outcomes of the post-1989 changes and the high level of corruption contributed to the centralization of power by populists and nationalists, which undermined democratic values and freedoms, using legal means. Russia and other authoritarian states exploit this situation and aim to increase political polarization and discontent through disinformation, corrosive capital, and other forms of malign influence. Governments and oligarchs now control most mass media, and in many cases, they have used the pandemic to increase pressure on civil society as economies suffer. Although people across Europe were demonstrating against abuses of power and rampant corruption, the pandemic forced people to stay home for most of 2020, making it harder to keep governments accountable.
In the midst of this global crisis, Belarus provided hope for change, as citizens braved the risks of both the pandemic and the regime’s brutal repression to flood the streets in unprecedented numbers following blatantly rigged presidential elections. Another hopeful development was the victory of pro-Western and pro-reformist President in Moldova, who has an ambitious anti-corruption agenda.
In all the countries in Europe where the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) provides assistance—from Belarus to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and from Ukraine to Serbia—independent media and civil society play indispensable roles in providing objective information, fighting disinformation, and holding public officials and institutions accountable. NED therefore increased funding for civil society and independent media organizations that promote political accountability and good governance, including in the most vulnerable areas. NED continued to emphasize political and historical reconciliation programs that counter polarization and extremism, especially among youth in post-conflict countries. NED also expanded support for initiatives that analyze, spotlight, and counter foreign malign influence, particularly disinformation and corrosive capital.
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