Democracy Lab

New Kid on the Block

Can the European Union prove a success at exporting democracy?

The video shows an impressive redbrick house in Kingston-upon-Thames, a leafy residential suburb in southwest London. A black Bentley is parked in the driveway. Now, a narrator appears, a young bespectacled man who explains that the prime property and the car belong to Yunis Abbasov, son of the Minister of Agriculture of Azerbaijan. It turns out that Abbasov Junior, who also owns an apartment in the capital's fashionable docklands, is a British passport holder. The reporter explains that Abbasov is far from an exception among members of the Azeri elite with close ties ruling clan of President Ilham Aliyev: many of them hold EU passports -- despite endless regime propaganda decrying the "decadent West."

Emin Milli studied international law and never trained to be a TV journalist, but his exposé of Abbasov has drawn more than 72 thousand views on YouTube, making it the most popular video among viewers in his native Azerbaijan. It's a big success for Meydan TV (the name means "public square"), which Milli founded earlier this year. His venture has also been a big success for the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), whose grant helped Milli realize his dream of establishing the only independent TV station in Azerbaijan.

The EED, modestly described as "an EU experiment" by its executive director, Jerzy Pomianowski, has big ambitions: it aspires to be the go-to source of assistance for individuals and groups struggling to help their fellow-citizens bring about a peaceful transition to democracy. Set up earlier this year with 6.2 million euros from the European Union, the agency is at its core a club of "true believers." In addition to traditional democracy supporters like Sweden and Denmark, it has attracted enthusiastic support, in the shape of over 5.5 million euros, from new EU members Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Romania, whose faith in "democracy promotion" burns strong. The new EU member states are most enthusiastic about the new agency because "these countries have a biographical experience of the transition to democracy," Pomianowski says -- in contrast to long-established democracies like France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, which have yet to donate funds to the EED.

Can this tiny outfit -- currently consisting of 13 staffers and a handful of part-time employees -- rescue a concept tainted by its association with the Bush Administration's military intervention in the Iraq War? And can the EED experiment convince skeptics who claim that democracy cannot take root in countries that do not share Western liberal values?

Pomianowski admits that it's too early to tell if his organization can make a dent in regimes like Aliyev's in Azerbaijan or Alexander Lukashenko's in Belarus. "Democracy may not be exported, but on the other hand it can't survive in isolation," he says. "We feel it our duty to offer political support and financial support to those who work for the adoption of democracy." He says that the EED's efforts are motivated by "a sense of solidarity" -- an apt choice of words, considering that the foundation is a flagship of Poland's EU presidency in 2011. (Pomianowski notes that one of the driving forces behind the EED has been Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who was a member of the Solidarity trade union in his youth.)

The EED has started its work in almost demonstrative negation of the bureaucratic approach that so often characterizes the workings of the EU. The group has consciously adopted a flat, pragmatic organizational structure that enables it to move nimbly once a need is identified. Board members took only nine days to approve a grant for an independent newspaper that was closed down by authorities in the South Caucasus.

"We have no offices in the areas we cover," explains Peter Sondergaard, the EED's head of programs. So the organization relies on local scouts, which it calls "stringers," to identify the most promising projects. "Stringers will know the actors involved, or they will know how to check their credentials," says Sondergaard. "They'll know, for instance, if a group that the government brands 'subversive' and 'corrupt' is in reality only trying to encourage the growth of democracy." Stringers often help applicants submit their grant requests, and sometimes monitor progress once funds are disbursed.

For Rawan Yaghi, a Lebanese activist, the agency's "value added" was immediately apparent. Yaghi wanted to set up a network of young Druse, Muslim, and Christian would-be politicians in the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. She planned to offer training in leadership and public policy analysis, hold a conference on corruption in the region, and groom the youngsters to raise a "strong alternative voice" to the politicians' Babel. She was confident that within 12 months, her efforts would be rewarded with a handful of potential candidates for municipal or parliamentary elections.

But Yaghi's organization, which she calls USPEaK, had little experience in the workings of non-government organizations and international agencies. So she felt correspondingly daunted by the prospect of submitting an application for a grant: Why would a donor take a risk on an unknown quantity? Then, through mutual connections, she met one of the EED's stringers. Convinced of the project's merits, he encouraged Yaghi to apply for a grant -- and was on hand to pilot her and her team through the process. "He was asking us the right questions, pointing out a mistake in our budget, edited our proposal," she says. "It wasn't a question of 'your project is either accepted or rejected.' There was follow-through, which was immensely helpful."

This marks a welcome departure for activists like Emin Milli, who otherwise waste time and money struggling with complicated and laborious applications. Jerzy Pomianowski thinks his agency's "new methodology" may well force the older and bigger players -- like, presumably, the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, on which the EED is loosely modeled -- to review their own bureaucratic processes. Pomianowski says, with a grin, that the new EU members, still fresh from their own transitions, bring a "naïve, simplistic energy" to their engagement with Europe's neighbors.

And that energy is precisely what you feel when you enter EED headquarters, located in an 18th-century villa that once served as the Polish Embassy in Brussels. The place buzzes with young men and women using phones or Skype as they talk in Russian, Arabic, English, and French. These "case officers" -- among them a Slovak, a German, and a Brit -- are exchanging information with carefully vetted locals on the ground in countries including Moldova, Jordan, and Belarus. Currently the EED operates only in the EU's strategic "neighborhood," but its chair, the German Member of the European Parliament Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, feels certain that its remit will stretch beyond these countries "once its track record is established."

Though the EED has only been open for business since August 2013, it has already disbursed 1,427,925 euros in grants ranging from 10,000 to 150,000 euros. Beneficiaries include an independent newspaper, the Kyiv Post, in Ukraine; a network of youth clubs in Lebanon; and, in Belarus, the "Solidarity with Belarus Info Office," which aims to build links between Belarusians and the European Union.

Emin Milli's dealings with the EED bear out the advantages of the simplified approach. Other donors set a host of conditions for grant approval, asking for passports, bank account details, or tax status. "They clearly didn't know what the reality is for those of us who work in a dictatorship, or in exile," says Milli, who served a prison term in Azerbaijan before leaving for the West. "The EED understood that offices in Baku get raided, [and] volunteers in any organization critical of Aliyev live under threat." Today he travels with a special ID card issued by the Germans, who have recognized him as a political asylum-seeker.

Both Yaghi and Milli believe that democracy promotion can take hold in even the most hostile environments. But Milli freely admits that "democracy is discredited in our neck of the woods." Alexander Graf Lambsdorff blames recent U.S. policy in the Middle East: "America made one major mistake, which was justifying the Iraq war with democracy. The expression 'democracy promotion' was toxic for a while simply because the rest of the world understood it to mean aggressive intervention and export. Democracy promotion using the military is not the way to do it." Lambsdorff compares the European approach to gardening: "We'll sow the seeds and hope the terrain is fertile."

Elections are not enough, David Kramer, president of Freedom House, agrees: "If there is no foundation for civil society, then a free election may well take place -- but the government that comes to power may engage in all kinds of abuses," he says. "You need to promote universal -- I prefer that to 'liberal' -- values at the same time you promote democratic principles and work to build democratic institutions." He'd like to see the new organization focus on support for civil society organizations, cultivating democracy from the grassroots.

Nadia Schadlow of the Smith Richardson Foundation worries similarly that the EED approach may be naive: "We need to shift the focus from the process of democracy to a consideration of liberal foundations that make it work the way we hope it will work."

In countries from Azerbaijan to Lebanon, activists involved in initiatives like Meydan TV and USPEaK are rescuing the concept of democracy promotion from its less attractive connotations. At a time when traditional diplomacy as pursued by America and "old Europe" is floundering, the EED promises to stir things up.

VICTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

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