Every year on September 15, the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy offers an opportunity to reflect on the state of democracy and the challenges facing it. This year’s theme spotlights the need to strengthen democratic institutions against a backdrop of increasing disparities of economic opportunity.
In Central and Eastern Europe, those disparities have become more prominent in recent years, heightening the need to re-examine assumptions about the region’s transitions. Although the region made great strides in building democratic institutions and growing market economies over the course of two decades, the quality of—and support for—democracy has started to decline. Corruption has become a way of life in Hungary, where the government doles out public money based on political loyalty and friendships. In Poland, the government has exerted undue influence over the judiciary system, depriving citizens of their fundamental democratic freedoms.
When democracy deteriorates, citizens pay the price in terms of their well-being and access to economic opportunities. In Central and Eastern Europe, younger generations have no memory of the struggles against command economies and political totalitarianism. Many have lost faith in post-socialist government, and question whether democracy and market economies are the best way to organize their societies. Partly as a result, public support for even outright fascism has gained ground in Slovakia. This should serve as a red flag for the other democracies in Europe, countries further east that are still in the midst of difficult transitions, and those who fight for democracy against repressive regimes around the world.
According to a recent study by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, only a strong democracy, which entails freedom and participation rights, can spur economic growth in the long run. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has cited two problems that have been dragging down democracy in recent years: lack of education and high youth unemployment. In response to these current challenges, and to reinvigorate support for democracy and markets in Central and Eastern Europe, CIPE worked with youth, local thought leaders, civil society groups, and the private sector to write and launch the “Declaration of Commitment to Liberty and Prosperity in Central and Eastern Europe.”
The Declaration proposes key reforms, such as teaching democracy, citizenship, current events, and critical thinking in public schools. It also promotes policies that improve the entrepreneurial environment to foster growth, strengthen the middle class, and increase the number of citizens who consider themselves democratic stakeholders. In addition, the Declaration supports an open, fair, and competitive environment that is attractive to investors and a skilled work force.
We at CIPE know that for progress and reform to take hold, younger generations must play an active role in advancing democratic and market-oriented reform. CIPE works closely with its partners to provide young people around the world with the tools they need to become capable leaders, helping them to effectively shape their countries’ future. Additionally, we support initiatives to reduce barriers to doing business and promote an inclusive entrepreneurial culture that provides opportunities for all citizens. As we look ahead, we are committed to working with our partners to enhance citizens’ understanding of the relationship between democracy and prosperity, and to engage champions of the private sector in advancing democratic, pro-market values not only in Central and Eastern Europe but around the globe.
The International Day of Democracy presents an ideal opportunity for people everywhere to take action to ensure that democracy delivers on its promises. Signing the Declaration is an important first step toward achieving that goal.
Full declaration available here.
Martina Hrvolova is a CIPE Program Officer for Eastern Europe and Eurasia.