With the core principles of democracy under attack, Central European leaders worry that Russia will exploit the region’s crisis of confidence through manipulation and attempts to portray a moral equivalence between East and West.
Last week’s discussion titled “What Are We Fighting For? Democracy and Values” brought together three experts in a discussion of what to expect in the face of an unprecedented refugee crisis and—in the words of one of those experts—“an illiberal strain running through populist movements” in countries from Poland to Hungary.
The panel, moderated by Edward Lucas, senior vice-president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, took place on Day 1 of the 8th CEPA Forum in Washington.
According to Christopher Walker, vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, said it wasn’t until Russia took Crimea by force in 2014 that Western leaders “sat up straight” and finally noticed what was going on.
“People started reacting to Russia’s sophisticated manipulation of propaganda just in the last couple of years, but the challenge to democracies was well underway even before Crimea,” said Walker, formerly of Freedom House.
He said the Kremlin uses money as an instrument of manipulation and corruption. He listed “industrial-scale trolling, cyberattacks and algorithms—all of which require a significant investment” of state resources.
“This is designed to make it impossible to have a legitimate democratic discussion, precisely when newspapers are under pressure. If democracies can’t understand what they’re fighting for, then we have a real problem,” he said, adding that Moscow aims “to subvert democratic systems, and accelerate and stoke the problems democracies face internally.”
Former Polish President Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, recalling the groundswell of public support 35 years ago for the Solidarity movement, said he hopes his country is still moving in the right direction.
“Today when I read that democratic capitalism is in trouble, I feel particularly uncomfortable,” he said. “At the same time, the list of mistakes done by reformists everywhere has caused so many people to feel nostalgic for the past. Of course, we Poles are lucky because we have plenty of problems—but nostalgia is not one of them.”
Romanians don’t appear to be especially nostalgic for communist times, either.
Laurentju-Mihal Stefan, Romania’s presidential counselor for internal affairs, said his country’s November 2014 election of Klaus Iohannis as president “was a clear indication that Romanian citizens want to keep the country on a European path.”
Furthermore, Iohannis remains committed to a strong anti-corruption platform and to pressuring political parties to “clean themselves up,” said Stefan.
“Some officials that had previously been convicted were elected to office. These citizens are still eager to buy into ideas that have no substance. I relate this to their level of education,” he said, explaining that Iohannis recently launched a program to “increase the consciousness of people to be much more aware who they vote into office.”