Democratic Resilience, Rule of Law and Economic Security

Charting Europe’s Policy Options

Nowadays the Kremlin employs a multifaceted strategy to erode democratic institutions and expand its geopolitical influence in Europe and beyond. The countries of the Eastern flank of the EU have appeared to be a special target of the Kremlin and simultaneously – the most vulnerable ones. This strategy includes strategic corruption, the politicization of civil security institutions, and cognitive capture, exploiting the region’s vulnerabilities. By leveraging economic dependencies, especially in the energy sector, and controlling media narratives, these efforts not only destabilize the political landscape but also erode public trust in democratic processes and European integration.

On June 27, 2024, the Center for the Study of Democracy hosted a policy roundtable, devoted to charting Europe’s policy options for fostering democratic resilience, rule of law and economic security as part of the response to foreign authoritarian influence in the region. BridgeGap researchers have contributed to the discussion, exploring the links between corruption and undue foreign influence.

Ruslan Stefanov, Program Director and Chief Economist at the Center for the Study of Democracy (BridgeGap partner), opened the discussion by introducing the concept of sanctions enforcement as a relatively new but essential tool for Europe, particularly relevant for countering strategic and political corruption. He underscored the importance of addressing the weakest links within the union and highlighted the geopolitical complexities introduced by China and Russia. Stefanov emphasized the need for effective responses and robust rule of law and anti-corruption efforts, especially in Southeast Europe, which remains vulnerable.

Matthew Boyse, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, provided a perspective on societal resilience in the face of hybrid attacks from authoritarian regimes. Citing the strategic insights of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Boyse discussed the indirect methods adversaries use to weaken democracies, such as influencing elections and media narratives. He stressed the urgency of enhancing resilience and addressing state capture, which remains a significant threat to democratic institutions and alliances. Dr. Janine Wedel of George Mason University and the Institute for Futures Studies (BridgeGap partner) delved into the phenomenon of weaponized corruption, where corruption is systematically used to achieve geopolitical goals. She drew parallels between the US and Europe, pointing out the involvement of elites in strategic corruption. Wedel highlighted the model of resilience seen in Ukraine, where collective efforts against corruption have strengthened societal resolve.

The disussion was opened by Martin Vladimirov, Director Climate and Energy at the Center for the Study of Democracy discussed the necessity of bolstering EU strategic autonomy. He lamented the lack of political will to decouple from Russian influence and stressed the importance of maintaining momentum in sanction enforcement. Vladimirov proposed the creation of a new EU body to prosecute sanction evasion effectively, emphasizing the need for better coordination between EU and US policies. Dr. Kristian Lasslett from Ulster University and the Institute for Futures Studies addressed the weaponization of offshore financial structures by Kremlin-linked oligarchs. He explained how these entities exploit legal frameworks to evade sanctions and capture resources, using complex corporate avatars to obscure their activities. Lasslett called for radical measures to combat these practices and improve accountability.

Goran Georgiev, Senior Analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy, focused on the the importance of state capture and foreign influence in the civil security sector of the Balkan countries. He emphasized the role of strategic communication and education in building public trust and resilience. Dr. Claudiu Tufiș from the University of Bucharest and Romanian Academic Society (BridgeGap partner) highlighted Romania’s unique position with less Russian interference compared to Bulgaria. He stressed the need to focus on internal actors in combating state capture and called for greater EU involvement to support democratization efforts in newer democracies. Dr. Todor Galev, Director of Research at the Center for the Study of Democracy, discussed cognitive capture linked to strategic corruption in Bulgaria. He noted the significant influence of pro-Kremlin propaganda and the challenges posed by media oligarchs and educational institutions with strong Kremlin ties.

In the concluding Q&A, participants agreed on the EU’s proficiency in creating sound legislation but its shortcomings in their effective implementation. They emphasized the need for active political engagement, banning or regulating offshore entities, and addressing political cynicism. The role of evidence-based research and provocative advocacy was underscored as essential in combating state capture and enhancing democratic resilience.