Although established Western democracies have been at the forefront of international democracy support for the past several decades, some newer democracies in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East have also at times carried out such support. In the 2000s, hopes swelled that major non-Western democracies—such as Brazil, India, Poland, South Africa, and Turkey—would energize the field with new ideas and initiatives. However, in recent years, many of these countries have experienced democratic slippage or reversals as part of a larger global democratic recession. How has this trend affected their support for democracy abroad? Has it led them to change, reduce, or abandon their efforts?
An examination of regional democracy support by Poland and Turkey—two countries experiencing significant democratic backsliding—offers some initial answers to these questions. Despite the democratic downturns at home, both Poland and Turkey continue to provide democracy support in their regions, albeit less enthusiastically. This is because the support is embedded in the countries’ foreign policies and is often more instrumental than normative.
Poland: Democracy Support From Zeal to Shame?
With the collapse of communism across the Soviet satellites of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, Poland embraced a transition to democracy as part of its larger agenda to rejoin the Euro-Atlantic world. The country immediately sought to meet the ambitious economic and political reform requirements for joining the EU and NATO, and international democracy support became an important element of Poland’s new foreign policy.
In fact, Polish support for democracy in its region had already begun in the 1980s. The Polish anti-communist movement Solidarity carried out activities to mobilize and assist allies in other countries fighting against the Soviet system.1 Some of these activists later laid the ideological and organizational foundations of civil society in post-communist Poland, resulting in the establishment of a number of civic organizations that developed ambitious international democracy assistance efforts. Other Solidarity activists later turned to politics and embedded international democracy support into the country’s foreign policy. Such support became central to the country’s post-1989 security strategy of creating reliable partners in its eastern neighborhood and counterbalancing Russian power.2
In the early 1990s, Poland began using its bilateral ties in Ukraine and Belarus, and to a lesser extent in Moldova and Georgia, to press diplomatically for democratization.3 These initiatives continued into the 2010s. Poland provided political and moral support to the embattled Belarusian political and civic opposition, especially during presidential elections. More consequentially, Poland engaged politically in Ukraine—at both the local and national levels—and played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, in which the country’s united opposition protested against electoral fraud and mobilized the citizenry to demand democracy. Warsaw further played an important role in the 2013 political crisis in Ukraine, when pro-Russia forces aligned against those favoring democratization and closer ties with the EU.
By the late 1990s, while still receiving Western democracy assistance itself, Warsaw had begun to provide post-communist countries with democracy aid. Poland used its new development assistance program Polish Aid to fund democracy-related projects implemented by Polish NGOs and state institutions, primarily in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.4 In 2001, Poland established the Polish Foundation for International Cooperation for Development “Know-How” as a forum for sharing its democracy transition experiences. Warsaw relaunched the foundation in 2013 as the Solidarity Fund PL, a quasi-independent agency that provides democracy aid. In addition, Polish agencies ran twinning consultancy and training programs, primarily with counterparts in Ukraine. Warsaw also provided additional special appropriations to support Ukraine’s and Belarus’s democratization at critical junctures for these countries.5
During this period, Poland leveraged its membership in an array of international and Euro-Atlantic organizations—particularly the EU, NATO, and OSCE—to bolster its pro-democracy agenda. Warsaw set out to create close ties between these organizations and Poland’s primary recipients of democracy support in order to (1) increase the former’s technical and financial assistance to these recipients and (2) cement the recipients’ commitment to economic and political liberalism. Warsaw’s strategy was at least partially successful. For example, in 2009, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership, a joint Polish-Swedish initiative intended to support the democratization of the EU’s immediate eastern neighbors and to promote European integration.6 Subsequently, upon assuming the rotating presidency of the EU in 2011, Poland made democracy promotion in the Eastern Partnership countries one of its priorities and gave new impetus to European aspirations for countries in the Western Balkans.
But, in 2016, after being viewed as a model democratizer for more than two decades, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party assumed power and immediately began undermining the independence of the judiciary and public media and constraining certain expressions of civic activism. The PiS has sought to recoup some of Poland’s national sovereignty from the EU and has defied Brussels’s efforts to halt the country’s domestic democratic rollback. Nevertheless, despite this domestic political rupture, Poland’s international democracy support has not undergone a similar radical shift and instead persists, albeit with some changes.
This continuity in support is most obvious in Polish democracy aid. Both the Solidarity Fund PL and Polish Aid continue to provide democracy assistance, with few changes to their priorities.7 For example, in Ukraine, the fund has continued to support local government reform, local media, and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement; and in Belarus, it has continued to assist independent media, human rights organizations, free and fair elections, civil society, and youth.8 The budget allocations to democracy support by the fund and Polish Aid, as well as the share of democracy to all projects funded by Polish Aid, also remain relatively unchanged.9 Moreover, broader flagship initiatives such as the Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy and the Eastern Partnership Academy of Public Administration, as well as special appropriations, also remain in place, though some have less funding.10 Many Polish scholarships for Ukrainian and Belarusian youth leaders and dissidents continue to be granted; and despite threatening to cut the funding of Belarus’s Belsat, a television channel partially funded by the Polish state, the PiS government has continued to support independent media development in Belarus.
However, there have been some noteworthy changes to the types of Polish Aid projects supported and the selection of project implementers. More conservative organizations and groups close to the PiS have received an increasing share of the aid to implement projects abroad. The party has also sought to channel aid away from so-called liberal, foreign-funded organizations—key players in Poland’s democratization work at home and abroad before 2016. In part to maintain political control over the distribution of aid, the government has provided further assistance through its ministries, especially the foreign ministry, and has encouraged the Solidarity Fund PL to implement programs itself.11 Lastly, in reflection of the global trend to provide more measurable aid and the lack of democratization progress in Ukraine and Belarus, Polish Aid projects have increasingly become more technical.12
Regarding Poland’s diplomatic efforts, enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine’s democratization waned several times even before the PiS came to power—once after Ukraine’s slow democratization progress post-2004 and again post-2013. After the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014, Poland became less critical of even glaring democracy problems in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also led to the mobilization of nationalist and often far-right volunteer brigades in Ukraine and to a rise in economic migrants to Poland—issues that rapidly began to complicate Polish-Ukrainian relations.13 In 2016, bilateral diplomacy became increasingly dominated by discussions of managing Polish-Ukrainian tensions (which was a response in part to events in Ukraine and in part to the PiS’ efforts to rally its base).
While Warsaw no longer vocally and actively pushes for Ukraine’s democratization at the highest political levels, Poland’s support for specific pro-democratic reforms continues, especially at the working cabinet and local levels.14 For example, relations between the Ukrainian and Polish local governments have remained close: Polish experts continue to assist Ukrainian officials with local administration and fiscal decentralization reforms. At the same time, given the 2016 democratic reversal and nationalist turn in Poland and its weakening position in the EU, Ukraine has become less receptive to Warsaw’s influence.15 While Poland continues to support EU initiatives that promote closer relations with, and the democratization of, the EU’s eastern neighbors,16 this support has quieted down given Warsaw’s strained relations with Brussels.17
Poland’s relationship with its other priority recipient, Belarus, also deteriorated long before the PiS came to power—particularly after 2010 when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the mass detention and persecution of his opponents as well as civil society activists protesting the election results. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and half a decade of failed sanctions on the Lukashenko regime, the United States and the EU eased some of their sanctions on Belarus, and Poland followed suit. When power turned over in Poland, the PiS continued to open up to Belarus, which resulted in the resuming of political and economic ties and some improvement in the situation of the Polish minority there.18 The party inadvertently recognized the loyalist Belarusian Parliament and showed rhetorical sympathy for the authoritarian regime on a couple of occasions but then backtracked.19 Still, Polish support for the Belarusian opposition has continued, even though it has been more low-key (without many references to values) and primarily directed toward the civic rather than political opposition (partly as the latter is currently weak and fragmented).20 In addition, after a disputed presidential election in Belarus triggered massive street protests and a crackdown on the opposition in the summer of 2020, Poland was once again one of the main countries pushing the EU to take action against Lukashenko.
In sum, Warsaw’s international democracy support has persisted, even after the PiS started rolling democracy back at home. This enduring support is rooted in Poland’s geopolitical strategy to contain Russia by democratizing mutual neighbors, moving them closer to the EU, creating a buffer zone, and weakening Russia’s sphere of influence.21 Polish international democracy support has thus survived not only major changes in political power between 1989 and 2015 but also the quick and radical transformation of the Polish political system after 2016.
Turkey: A Hesitant but Also Heavy-Handed Democracy Supporter?
After failing to consolidate its democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the quality of Turkish democracy started to improve toward the end of the 1990s. This was mainly due to the EU accession process, which gained pace after 1999, and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power in 2002. To quickly secure its political survival against the secularist establishment, the AKP actively pursued the EU accession process and carried out some of the necessary political reforms. Following Turkey’s abolition of the death penalty, introduction of a new Civil Code, and expansion of the freedom of expression, Turkish democracy continued its upward trajectory until 2006.22 In the early and mid-2000s, the West began to describe Turkey as a regional model of democracy that could be emulated by countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
However, Turkish democracy started to deteriorate after 2006 and entered into a steep decline after 2012. Freedom House downgraded the country to “Not Free” in 2018. Interestingly, Turkey began supporting democracy abroad at the same time that its own democracy started slipping. Through diplomacy, official development assistance (ODA), political conditionality, and military intervention, Turkey worked to promote democratic transitions in the MENA region.23
In the early days of the Arab Spring, Turkey presented itself as a model of democracy, secularism, and economic growth. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Ankara “named and shamed” MENA rulers who refused to give up power in the face of mounting public unrest (especially in Egypt and Syria).24 In the case of Syria, before the initial outbreak of the conflict, Ankara engaged in multiple bilateral diplomacy efforts to push the country in a democratic direction.
Turkey also provided concessional loans and assistance to Egypt, Libya, and Syria to strengthen their administrative and civil infrastructures in anticipation of the new regimes’ expected transitions to democracy. However, after the Egyptian coup in 2013, Turkey withdrew its ODA assistance to Egypt, downgraded its diplomatic relations with Cairo, and called on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Egypt. Similarly, after its diplomatic efforts with Syria failed to bear fruit, Turkey announced economic sanctions in November 2011 and suspended all bilateral agreements with Syria in December 2011. Turkey had miscalculated the resilience of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the tenacity of Russian and Iranian support of Assad. And following Ankara’s failed attempts to mobilize a UN-backed or U.S.-led large-scale military intervention to overthrow the regime, Turkey’s military was drawn further into the Syrian quagmire.
Ankara also intervened militarily in Libya in January 2020, repeatedly claiming that Libyan domestic actors had called upon Turkey to restore civilian rule and democracy in the face of General Khalifa Haftar’s desire to establish personal rule.25 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has blamed the EU for violating the union’s core values, democratic principles, and human rights by not sufficiently supporting the Libyan government and “leave[ing] Libya at the mercy of a warlord.”
Yet, in all these MENA cases, Turkey’s primary concern has not been ensuring a principled commitment to democracy. Instead, geostrategic calculations have been the main drivers of its efforts. In attempting to support democratic transitions in Egypt and Syria, Turkey hoped to increase its regional clout with like-minded Muslim Brotherhood leaderships with which the AKP has historically enjoyed close links. Democracy consolidation was expected to lead to the installation of Muslim Brotherhood governments in these countries. Turkey’s goal was especially visible in Egypt: in 2012, the AKP sent election experts to assist Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood with its campaign and viewed Mohamed Morsi’s election as president as a foreign policy success. Subsequently, Morsi attended the AKP’s 2012 Congress and thanked the Turkish government for its support during the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011.
Turkey’s geopolitical strategy has been, and continues to be, slightly different in Libya. Through its support for the Libyan national government, Turkey hopes to strengthen its own presence in the Eastern Mediterranean—both to secure its access to hydrocarbon resources and to gain the upper hand in the conflict over maritime boundaries in the region. Turkey also seeks to secure its commercial interests, particularly in the construction sector.
Ankara has provided similar instrumental—albeit modest and indirect—democracy assistance in sub-Saharan Africa (since 2013), the Balkans (since 2005), and South and Central Asia (since 2004). In these instances, Turkey has not had an explicit agenda to help achieve or consolidate democracy and instead has focused mostly on state building. The overriding motivations have been more economic in nature. In sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey’s policies have primarily aimed to increase the volume of Turkish trade, increase access to new markets, and strengthen its geostrategic presence in the Horn of Africa. In the Balkans, in addition to economic motivations, Ankara has sought to be a patron of Muslim communities in the region. In South and Central Asia, economic drivers, ethnic kinship, and the desire to enhance Ankara’s geostrategic presence have played central roles in Turkey’s efforts.
Yet, regardless of these underlying interests, Turkey’s ODA has supported numerous projects focused on good governance and state capacity—for example, efforts to strengthen state institutions and election infrastructure; train state officials, journalists, election commissions, and local governments on the fight against crime and radicalization; and improve the judicial system, the rule of law, anticorruption practices, electoral procedures, and international standards in policing. As late as 2019, when the quality of Turkish democracy was at its lowest in two decades, Ankara officially declared its two core ODA aims as “implementing Turkey’s international development activities in the most effective way” and “improving institutional capacity.” The latter included improving both “human, physical and administrative structure” and “institutional legislation, financial services and reporting services.”
In sum, even as its own democracy was rapidly deteriorating, Turkey employed a range of policy instruments to push for democratic transitions in the MENA region during and after the Arab Spring and, without asserting a broader pro-democracy agenda, provided ODA in other regions to support good governance and state capacity. The contradiction between Turkey’s domestic turn toward autocracy and its sporadic efforts at international democracy support largely stems from these efforts being an integral part of Turkey’s geopolitical strategies.
Reasons for Continuing
Poland and Turkey have made international democracy support an integral part of their geopolitical strategies, ensuring the survival of their democracy-oriented initiatives even in the context of domestic democratic regressions and changing international contexts. In the Polish case, the international environment for democracy support has become less permissive, largely in response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture, lack of democratization progress in key recipients, and the EU’s disgruntlement with Poland’s democratic rollback—the latter of which has undermined Poland’s credibility in the eyes of its aid recipients. Yet Warsaw’s international democracy support has persisted, albeit in a less enthusiastic and political manner. In the Turkish case, the international environment for democracy promotion weakened when the Arab Spring failed to deliver much democratic change in the region and when the intense conflicts emerging in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere shifted significant attention to security concerns. Still, Ankara’s democracy support has become more explicit and direct, even as the domestic regime has become unquestionably authoritarian.
The Turkish and Polish cases underline the emergence of “a new global marketplace of political change . . . in which varied arrays of states, including numerous non-democracies and non-Western democracies, are influencing transitional trajectories” and in which the motivations of governments seeking to shape political change in other countries are “complex and often non-ideological.” Thus while most internationally engaged autocracies gravitate toward supporting autocracy outside their borders, for at least some other authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments, supporting democracy abroad can be a way to improve their international standing, create a stable and prosperous neighborhood, balance against rising regional powers, or bandwagon with key democratic regional or global allies.
Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that are rising regional powers might be supporting regimes (even if they are politically quite different from their own) as a way to gain influence (as Turkey has done) or to balance against other regional autocracies (as discussed in the Polish case). Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries might also be responding to the increased rewards associated with embracing democracy. In the post–Cold War era, a number of states and international organizations began conditioning their political support, security guarantees, and aid on beneficiaries’ adherence to democratic norms in both domestic and foreign policy.
Lastly, democracies are generally believed to make better security and economic partners because they prefer—and are well-suited to—creating and maintaining stable, rule-based, and institutionalized governance regimes and international relations.26 As a result, it could be in the interest of nondemocratic states to support the democratization of volatile and/or poor countries to make better trade and security partners (as Poland has tried to do in the post-communist space, and Turkey has tried in Africa, Central Asia, and the Western Balkans). This is especially the case when sociopolitical developments in the recipient country could meaningfully affect the exporting states.
Tsveta Petrova is a lecturer at the Political Science Department at Columbia University. This article is partly based on research she conducted under a project that receives support from the European Union’s Erasmus + Programme. Support for this research does not constitute an endorsement of the article’s content, which reflects the views of the authors alone.
Senem Aydın-Düzgit is a professor of international relations at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Sabancı University and a senior scholar and the research and academic affairs coordinator at the Istanbul Policy Center.
1 Padraic Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
2 Tsveta Petrova, From Solidarity to Geopolitics: Support for Democracy Among Postcommunist States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
3 It also has paid some attention to the rest of the former Soviet Union and the Western Balkans, as well as ad hoc and symbolic attention to recipients beyond the post-communist region.
4 For more on Polish democracy assistance, see Paulina Pospieszna, Democracy Assistance Bypassing Governments in Recipient Countries: Supporting the “Next Generation” (London and New York: Routledge, 2018); and Galia Chimiak, The Growth of Non-Governmental Development Organizations in Poland and Their Cooperation With Polish Aid (Warsaw: IFiS, 2016).
5 Twinning is a process that pairs an organizational entity in one country with a similar but potentially more mature entity in another country as a method of technical assistance.
6 Countries participating in the Eastern Partnership are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
7 Author interviews with a Polish aid official and two Polish civil society officials, September 2018.
8 Annual reports shared by the Solidarity Fund PL at the authors’ request.
9 Annual Polish Aid allocations for democracy support projects to Ukraine as a share of all development aid projects to Ukraine: 2017 (39.8 percent) and 2018 (35.1 percent), compared to the average during 2014 to 2016 (32.8 percent). Unfortunately, no similar information is available for Belarus.
10 Author interviews with a Polish aid official and two Polish civil society activists, September 2018.
11 Author interviews two Polish civil society activists, September and October 2018.
12 Author interviews with Polish civil society activists, September 2018.
13 Author interviews with a Polish diplomat, May 2018.
14 Author interviews with a Polish diplomat, September 2018, a Ukrainian diplomat, October 2018, and a Polish civil society activist, May 2018.
15 Author interviews with a Ukrainian civil society activist, May 2018, and a Polish civil society activist, September 2018.
16 The EU itself also has begun to emphasize people-to-people and economic cooperation.
17 Author interviews with a Polish diplomat, September 2018, and a Ukrainian diplomat, September 2018.
18 Author interviews with two Polish civil society activists, November 2019.
19Author interviews with a Belarusian civil society activist, September 2018, and a Polish civil society activist, September 2018.
20 Author interviews with a Polish diplomat, September 2018, a Belarussian civil society activist, September 2018, and a Polish civil society activist, September 2018.
21 It could be argued that this grand strategy has backfired and made Russia more aggressive and prone to interfere in the affairs of mutual Polish-Russian neighbors. Polish foreign policy elites have yet to revise their strategy, however. Author interviews with a Polish diplomat, November 2019.
22 Varieties of Democracy (VDem) data show that, despite slight setbacks, the quality of Turkish democracy generally increased between 1999 and 2006. See VDem’s country graph at https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/CountryGraph/.
23 Senem Aydın-Düzgit, “Can Non-Democracies Support International Democracy? Turkey as a Case Study,” Third World Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2020): 264–283.
24 Daniela Huber, Democracy Promotion and Foreign Policy: Identity and Interests in US, EU and Non-Western Democracies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
25 For similar arguments, see Adam McConnel, “Analysis—Turkey, the New Great Arsenal of Democracy,” Anadolu Agency, July 14, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/analysis-turkey-the-new-great-arsenal-of-democracy/1910049.
26 Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry, and Takashi Inoguchi, eds., American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).