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Interview: 'Democratic Development Survives Bad Laws And Repression'

Russian protesters outside the office of the election-monitoring NGO Golos in Moscow accuse the group of foreign ties. Rodger Potocki says the NED doesn't "ascribe to this idea that there are phrases or approaches that are foreign or domestic, that are internal or external."
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private foundation based in Washington, D.C., that provides grants and other support to organizations around the world that promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The NED's senior director for Europe, Rodger Potocki, recently visited RFE/RL's broadcast center in Prague and spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson about the ongoing crackdown against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia and other challenges to democracy-promotion efforts in the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: These would seem to be trying times for democracy promotion. How seriously do you think we need to be taking the current crackdown in Russia against nongovernmental organizations, the media, the political opposition?

Rodger Potocki:
I think we have to take them very seriously. But also, remember that these types of things go in cycles. I've been working on democracy promotion in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years now, and we've seen periods over and over again when people say that democracy is dead, that nothing is happening, groups are never going to make any difference. And, overwhelmingly, we are proved wrong -- other experts are proved wrong.

Rodger Potocki
Rodger Potocki
We believe that democratic development is a long-term process. It survives different leaders and different governments. It survives bad laws and repression. And it will survive in this instance. We have to be optimists in the type of work that we do. If we gave up at the first sign or even the 20th sign of lack of success or of crackdowns, then it really wouldn't be possible to continue what we are doing.

I think the crackdown in Russia on NGOs shows, in a sense, really how isolated and desperate the government there is. It is reacting in the same way we see other governments react when they are unsure of their own support, when they are weak, when they are facing an uncertain future. Our job is to continue to help those inside these countries that are pushing for democracy, pushing for human rights, pushing to rejoin the Western and civilized family of nations, and we'll continue to do that regardless of the obstacles.

RFE/RL: In recent months, we've seen quite similar tactics adopted in other former Soviet countries, most notably in Azerbaijan. To what extent does Russia set the tone for democracy development throughout the region? Or perhaps these things aren't related?

We see them as related. Certainly there are larger, stronger, bigger countries in different regions that have either a positive or a negative influence on internal developments in neighboring states. But our focus really is on what is happening inside these countries.

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As a nongovernmental organization, as a small, nonprofit foundation, we have very little influence on great-power relations, on international relations at all. We work with other nongovernmental organizations inside more than 80 countries around the world and our primary task is to help democrats inside these countries who are confronting repression from their own governments, that are trying to improve the lives of their citizens, that are trying to make changes within their own domestic context. There is really nothing that we can do to blunt the repressive or the negative influences of other countries on those autocratic governments, on those countries that are at different stages of democratic transition.

RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that democracy promotion is inappropriate interference in his country's domestic affairs and has labeled nongovernmental organizations like the ones that work with the NED as "foreign agents." How would you respond to Putin if he were here?

We don't ascribe to this idea that there are phrases or approaches that are foreign or domestic, that are internal or external. Democracy and human rights are universal values. We believe that those in Russia and those around the world should share the same rights and freedoms that we in the United States and those in Europe have and are free to express.

We believe that Russia is part of the international community. It is a signatory to dozens of international agreements on these universal values. The fact that Russians and Europeans and Americans are trying to promote these values in Russia and elsewhere is not a crime and is not something that is foreign. It should be something that the Russian government embraces and supports.

RFE/RL: Has the NED been directly affected by what is going on in Russia? Have you been forced to rethink your plans or tactics?

The National Endowment for Democracy works in over 80 countries around the world and each of those countries has its own specific challenges, has its own obstacles and domestic conditions that make support for democracy and human rights challenging in different ways. We have existed now for about 30 years. We have many different procedures and approaches to working in difficult, closed countries -- countries that are much more difficult to work in than Russia.

Our primary job is to help organizations inside of these countries to promote democracy, to promote human rights, to promote reform. And these organizations inside these countries find ways to do this and we find ways to support them. Certainly, occasionally, moves such as those by the Russian government make this work harder, but it doesn't make it impossible and we'll continue to try to carry out our mission, which is really to help others improve conditions for citizens inside these countries.

"Democracy and human rights are universal values.... The fact that Russians and Europeans and Americans are trying to promote these values in Russia and elsewhere is not a crime and is not something that is foreign."
"Democracy and human rights are universal values.... The fact that Russians and Europeans and Americans are trying to promote these values in Russia and elsewhere is not a crime and is not something that is foreign."

RFE/RL: You said the NED isn't involved in great-power relations and things like that, but I have to ask you about the U.S. Magnitsky list, which will impose targeted sanctions on Russian officials believed to be involved in human rights abuses. Is this an effective way of engaging with the Russian government on rights and democracy?

I really can't comment on the different approaches taken by governments, whether it is the United States or the EU or individual governments in regard to how they interact with other governments. As I said, we are working with nongovernmental organizations. We are a nongovernmental organization. We work within a different spectrum than diplomatic or international relations. We work with people-to-people contacts, organization-to-organization contacts.

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We hope that these great-power politics don't hinder our work more than is necessary. We appreciate it when they do assist and advance the work that we are doing. But in general this is really just a different plane, a different type of approach to building democracy. The U.S. government has its own strategies, its own priorities, as does the NED.

RFE/RL: I imagine it isn't going to make your work any easier.

That is true, but again I've been through more than two decades now of different events, whether it is sanctions or blockades or Olympic boycotts or different types of disruptions within international relations, between different governments. But that doesn't really, in a sense, filter down to a great extent to the kind of work that we are doing. We are small. We aren't really on the radar screen, in a lot of ways, and we just try to work around what we hope are just momentary or sporadic disruptions in these kinds of relations.

RFE/RL: We've talked a lot about the negative developments in Russia. Can we end our conversation by saying something optimistic about the situation there or the groups you work with?

I would say, in regard to Russia, for example, that the partners we work with, overwhelmingly, are not daunted by these new regulations. They are not afraid of what is going on inside the country in terms of stopping the work that they are doing or are avoiding contact or a relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy. We are very proud and inspired by the good work that they do, the work they continue to do, the relationship they want to continue to have with us. We look forward to helping them improve the state of democracy, human rights, and democratic reforms in Russia despite the difficult circumstances.

RFE/RL: And finally, I'd like to ask you about Moldova. Recently, the EU's Eastern Partnership rated it the most successful of the partner countries. On the other hand, the pro-European coalition there has collapsed and is struggling to reorganize itself. Are you optimistic about Moldova?

I think that government instability has been a feature of Moldova's transition since 1991. We see this, hopefully, as a blip in their progress toward greater democracy and European integration. Again, our job is really working with nongovernmental organizations in Moldova. And these groups remain committed to a pro-Western, pro-European, pro-democratic, pro-tolerance agenda of reforms that the government seems to be carrying out and that the European Union and the United States continue to support.

We hope that the political crisis can be solved quickly there. We look forward to seeing that transition continue to be successful and we hope that the European Union recognizes that success story, which is one of the best within the former Soviet republics -- and practically recognizes that in November at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.