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Interview: The 'Democracy Containment Doctrine'

A masked pro-Russian separatist carries two ballot boxes from a seized polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine.
A masked pro-Russian separatist carries two ballot boxes from a seized polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Authoritarian states are exporting the policies they employ against media and civil society at home in an effort to keep democracy at bay, and it's time to take notice. That's the view of Christopher Walker, executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, who spoke to RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari about the "Democracy Containment Doctrine."

RFE/RL: You argued in an opinion piece in the "The Washington Post" that several authoritarian countries are using their foreign policies to contain young democracies or countries with democratic ambitions. As an example of what you call the "democracy containment doctrine," you cited the annexation of Crimea by Russia, which you see as an effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving an accountable government that could threaten Russia's authoritarian system. Could you elaborate?

Christopher Walker:
I think one of the features of the authoritarians' approach, including Russia, has been to take the standards they apply domestically and to seek to apply them beyond their borders. So these are all countries that have very limited space for civil society and independent media and political opposition, and this seems to be guiding increasingly the way they approach their foreign policy. In Russia's case we can see the annexation of Crimea in the sense that the Crimean media landscape right now, just to use this example, has been brought to Russian standards. So in essence the Russian repressive standard has now been applied to Crimea's media, its politics, its civil society. And what's happening in eastern Ukraine at the moment, largely through the provocations of Russia, is destabilizing profoundly the country, and in this respect, to the extent that many Ukrainians have expressed their interest for a less corrupt and more accountable form of government, very difficult to achieve that when there is an ongoing crisis being provoked in a very significant part of the country by Russia.
Christopher Walker
Christopher Walker

RFE/RL: You note in your piece that Ukraine is not the only country in that region that has been targeted by Russia's repressive foreign-policy measures, mentioning Georgia and Moldova as examples. How has Russia been operating vis-a-vis countries in the region that are pursuing democratic change?

Well, here too what we've seen in countries that have attempted to pursue reforms, Russia is a very unhelpful partner. We've seen this both through the military invasion of Georgia, but also through the various economic sanctions and blockades that have been used against Georgia and other countries in the region -- this was true for the Baltic States over the last 20 years, at one point or another. So you see there is a real emphasis on trying to limit the ability of these governments to improve their local governance in a direction of greater accountability and democracy.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about the strategies Russia and other countries -- you mention Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia -- are using to limit the spread of democracy. You've identified three "spheres of containment": international institutions, the containment of young democracies and countries whose democratic ambition or success could pose a threat to authoritarian states, and also the realm of ideas.

If you look at the level of regional or international institutions, a real focus of all of the governments you just mentioned -- China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in the Latin American context this has been true about Venezuela -- has been to erode or hollow out the standards of the institutions that have been critical for democratic standards since the end of the Cold War. So in the Eurasian context, this would include institutions like the Council of Europe, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but also include the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

At the same time, I think, what's really picked up momentum has been the focus by these regimes to create alternative institutions that are focused on setting authoritarian norms in these areas. So we've seen the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and there's also been the development of the Eurasian Customs Union. It's not to suggest that these institutions have been perfectly effective in meeting the objectives of the regimes that have been key to creating them. But the larger point is that there's an effort to institutionalize these norms that are aimed at contesting the established democratic norms. And this means that the entire framework by which rules are set and adhered to is being challenged. And this is a problem for all of the democracies, especially those that are within the jurisdiction of these institutions.

RFE/RL: These regimes are very much aware of the importance of ideas and they've been using their state media domestically and also internationally -- and also increasingly social media -- to control the narrative. How effective are these efforts in your opinion?

Well, this is certainly one of the spheres in which where these regimes are investing an enormous amount of resources, and in many ways seem to be gaining a foothold. So if we look at the state media landscape, in domestic terms, all of these countries have state media that are dominant in the local societies. What's noteworthy is that these regimes, which are so committed to controlling the flow of ideas within their borders, seem to be equally committed in participating in the marketplace of ideas beyond their borders. But this is often in a very illiberal way. So if we start with Russia, we look at Russia Today [RT] and the other related organizations and media outlets that have been created to promote ideas that are generated by the Russian state -- this has really been a formidable effort in the last years. They've focused on this very significantly; extensive resources have been put into these efforts. And there's now an effort to influence audiences beyond Russia's borders.

This isn't only in English-speaking countries, for which RT has gained quite a bit of attention, but it's also, very importantly, been the case in regions that are now, we can call them in competition in terms of ideas that are being discussed. So Russia has Arabic- and Spanish-language content that it projects out on a regular basis, China's CCTV is projecting its content into all sorts of different regions. But I would note that in sub-Saharan Africa, CCTV has really made an effort to project its content on to the continent. And this is something that has occurred at a time when other democratically-oriented media have been downsizing and scaling back so real questions arise as to the nature of the issues and how they're being framed by governments that are behind media that themselves are deeply repressive and illiberal at home.

RFE/RL: What should the response be to the issues we discussed? How should democratic countries react to repressive measures by Russia, Iran, and other countries?

It's been a very challenging period in some ways because the democracies have been facing their own serious challenges. But this shouldn't prevent democracies from speaking with a clear voice about their own values and standards. I don't think there's anything wrong with the democracies acknowledging their own flaws -- democratic systems have flaws. But what happens in the meantime is that the voice of the democracies has become much less vigorous and forthright in recent years. It would be very useful for, at a minimum, democracies to speak more candidly and more openly about the need for adherence to human rights standards. And at the same time, to focus for example on the profound limitations of the media systems, just to use that example, in the countries we've been discussing because there is something profoundly incongruous about countries that have such deeply repressive media systems at home which at the same time are so eagerly participating in the media marketplace beyond their borders. This is something that should be looked at much more carefully.

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