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Walker: Russia’s War on Democracy and Media Freedom in Eastern Europe

Christopher Walker, Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies at National Endowment for Democracy.

Christopher Walker is executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, a leading center for the analysis and discussion of the theory and practice of democratic development.

Walker previously served in Freedom House’s New York office as vice president for strategy and analysis, overseeing a team of analysts and senior scholars in devising overall strategy for the organization’s analytical projects.

His articles on media freedom and democracy have appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. He has served as Adjunct Professor of Global Affairs at New York University.

RFE/RL: In 2009, former Czech president [Vaclav] Havel, along with 22 other European intellectuals, signed an open letter to US president Obama warning him that Russia is pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods. Do you think that Havel was right?

Walker: I think what we have seen in the past months has really been a culmination of many years of activity that Russia has undertaken, which suggests efforts to contain or otherwise disrupt democratic developments in the region. In this regard, Vaclav Havel and the leaders especially from the central European region have what I would call very keen antennae to understanding the challenges that authoritarian powers present, in this case Russia. And in hindsight I think you can say that their diagnosis was accurate. And in this regard, what we have seen certainly in the past calendar year should have us all take a fresh look at how we have diagnosed Russia’s ambitions, and more importantly what this means for the future and how the West should respond. So, I think that because of the experience in the region, because of the tragic history that Central Europe in particular has experienced, both from the east and during the Second World War from the west, they are particularly attuned to the challenges that there are there, and I think we should all take the words and the diagnosis of Vaclav Havel very, very seriously.

RFE/RL: In what sense is Havel missed today?

Walker: Well, what some Czech colleagues have said to me recently is that Vaclav Havel was an anchor for key values, and at a time when the world and the West as a subset of the world, are kind of groping or having a crisis of confidence about their own values – in this regard Havel is very missed. He was always clear in his communication and clear in his ideas, and had a very firm sense of what democracy should value and prioritize, and I think we are missing that right now in a clear way.

RFE/RL: Czech President [Milos] Zeman described the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war and said the situation was a mere “flu” compared to the threat of Islamic terrorism. Do you find that reaction to the Ukraine crisis disappointing?

Walker: I think that one of the challenges of the current aggression in Ukraine is that many people, many audiences are having trouble diagnosing what is at its heart. And I think that by just about any measure, if you look at what has occurred from the first efforts to provoke disruption within Ukraine, the evidence suggests this is much more a provocation on the part of the Russian authorities, rather than being something that started and emerged as a civil war. But this gets to a very important question, relating to how we understand and view these sorts of issues – the efforts by the Russians to shape the narrative and to create an unclear sense of what is really happening in Ukraine have been effective in many regards. And I think we see it in a number of different instances. I think what is important to emphasize is that if one looks at this as a narrow issue concerning eastern Ukraine, it leads to one set of conclusions about the sort of response that is needed to deal with this challenge. However, if one takes what the Russian authorities have said at face value-- which is a policy to defend compatriots beyond the Russian Federation’s borders-- it suggests that a much different and more comprehensive response is needed to deal with what this suggests as threats to the international order and to Europe and to the European idea.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the Balkans are yet another front where Russia is trying to prevent the development of democratic institutions and democratic societies?

Walker: Well, I would mention just two spheres where there is evidence of efforts to shape the development in the Balkan region in a non-democratic way, if I could put it that way. One is media, where democratically oriented media is under enormous pressure by virtue of an inhospitable media landscape that the entire democratic world is confronting now. And there has been a very considerable amount of growth in authoritarian media – not only in the case of Russia, but China, Iran for example. And we see emergence of this and the roots growing in Balkans as well. There was a time when this sort of media voices that one would find in the region almost exclusively would be media enterprises like the BBC or AFP – all of which operate according to accountable and transparent editorial structures. Deutche Welle would be on the list… But today what we are seeing is something different, of course. Slowly, but inexorably, you have more voices that are illiberal, more voices that could be classified as propaganda rather than having any sort of editorial transparency emerging in the Balkans. And then, beyond that [in the second sphere], you have the clear growth in money finding its way into the region in all sorts of forms. Coming from countries and sources that are not operating in an accountable and transparent way, [it] creates all sorts of problematic inducements, especially for the elites in these countries that have to choose between developing their societies in a way that is open and transparent, or … making choices that lead them in the direction of greater corruption and the sort of public policy that really does not put the public interest first.

RFE/RL: Having in mind that Serbia will chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe starting in January; do you think that it will prove to be a Russian Trojan horse inside OSCE?

Walker: Well, I think that is hard to say. I think that reality today is that the sort of the assumptions we had about how the institutions like the OSCE and others that in 1990s… were viewed to be on a clear path to openness and the rule of law, essentially defending democratic values. And there is now far greater contestation about what these institutions should do and how they will operate. And I think we all need to be mindful that the assumptions of the not too distant past have been challenged in a very direct and profound way, and this means we should all think about safeguarding these kinds of institutions to make sure they operate in accordance with democratic values and standards.

RFE/RL: Of all the countries in the region, Kosovo and Bosnia are in the most precarious position, taking one step forward and two steps back. Is it possible that apart from their internal problems, both countries are seen as "Western projects" by Russian president Putin -- and that in his imagined cold war with the West he wants both of them to fail?

Walker: Well, it may be that Moscow does not see the democratic development of Bosnia and Kosovo as something that is a priority, or in its view desirable. That is hard to say. I think that the reality is that both of those countries have their own internal challenges that they need to wrestle with and manage in order to improve, and I think that local decision-makers can do more in those settings in their own right to advance the cause of more accountable and transparent governments separate and apart from outsiders’ influence today.

RFE/RL: I know you have mentioned that Milorad Dodik is not an easy one to follow, I mean he is not even a statesman, he is just a president of an entity [Republica Srpska] that is a part of Bosnia, but it is very interesting that since this spring, Putin has met with Dodik twice – Dodik was in Moscow twice. It is very strange for such a minor political figure, representing only one region of a small Balkan country, to be meeting the Russian President twice in a short period of time?

Walker: I think it is clear that Russia in the recent past has really accelerated and amplified its diplomacy in many spheres, and I think in a broad sense the engagement with Dodik speaks to this active engagement of illiberal voices, which we see with Russia’s cultivation of far-right political figures in western Europe and with partners on the international stage that are deeply illiberal. This authoritarian fraternity that Russia pursues and cultivates, and I think in the case of Republika Srpska and its leadership, this is of a piece with that.

RFE/RL: What are some of the ways in which the West could and should respond to Putin’s actions and propaganda, and hasn’t been done already?

Walker: Well, Russia’s efforts to promote propaganda have to be understood in a context of censorship as well. Russia’s propaganda within the Russian Federation can flourish because Russia has the ability to crush alternative voices. Russia’s propaganda beyond its borders operates in a different way, which is to say it has to compete in pluralistic media environments and democratic media environments. That does not mean it is ineffective. As my colleague Robert Orttung and I recently wrote in the Moscow Times beyond Russia’s borders the effort is to cloud and confuse and disrupt open discussion, and they have been fairly effective. I think that democratic voices need to refocus their attention on calling out the inaccurate information that is being systematically disseminated through Russian media. This this would require greater focus and greater resources to do in a way that meets the challenge--- not to respond in kind, but instead to use the inherent power democratic systems have to speak in an open way in a competitively pluralistic way to meet the challenge that Russia has set forth. Today, the challenge has not been met sufficiently, but it needs to be. It is too important because these issues are too important, and as media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, this does not happen in a vacuum. The sort of arguments and information that Russia has used as part of its propaganda is leading to a loss of life and enormous disruption, certainly in Ukraine.