by: CSIS – Center for International Strategic Studies / Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program
There was a deeply held assumption that, when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, these countries would continue their positive democratic and economic transformation. Yet more than a decade later, the region has experienced a steady decline in democratic standards and governance practices at the same time that Russia’s economic engagement with the region expanded significantly. Regional political movements and figures have increasingly sought to align themselves with the Kremlin and with illiberalism. Central European governments have adopted ambiguous—if not outright pro-Russian—policy stances that have raised questions about their transatlantic orientation and produced tensions within Western institutions. Are these developments coincidental, or has the Kremlin sought deliberately to erode the region’s democratic institutions through its influence to “break the internal coherence of the enemy system”?
The CSIS Europe Program, in partnership with the Bulgarian Center for the Study of Democracy, recently concluded a 16-month study to understand the nature of Russian influence in five case countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Serbia. This research determined that Russia has cultivated an opaque web of economic and political patronage across the region that the Kremlin uses to influence and direct decision making. This web resembles a network-flow model—or “unvirtuous circle”—which the Kremlin can use to influence (if not control) critical state institutions, bodies, and economies, as well as shape national policies and decisions that serve its interests while actively discrediting the Western liberal democratic system. The United States can no longer be indifferent to these negative developments, as all members of NATO and the European Union must collectively recognize that Russian influence is not just a domestic governance challenge but a national security threat.