Opinion piece from Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Opinion piece by Peter Eriksson, Minister for International Development Cooperation

Published

Opinion piece by Peter Eriksson, Minister for International Development Cooperation, in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter in connection with the Government’s increased support to the countries of Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and Turkey. Published on 17 March 2019.

Around the world, democracy is in decline. Today, more people live in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in countries making democratic progress. Democratic processes are being undermined. The rule of law is being scorned.

The objective of Sweden’s aid policy is to create better conditions for people living in poverty and oppression. While other countries are cutting back on their support, Sweden is continuing to allocate one per cent of GNI to aid. Apart from democracy and human rights, our focus areas are conflict prevention, the climate, the environment and gender equality. We will therefore increase our democracy assistance and stand up for democracy’s defenders and institutions. This will involve providing support and sustenance wherever democracy can grow, and expressing criticism when it is eroded.

Just like the climate, democracy is a defining issue of our time. There is no time to lose. The world’s countries have to pull together to reach the sustainable development goals and live up to the Paris Agreement. In the same way, we have to help each other ensure that democracy develops and that people’s trust and confidence in the democratic system grows stronger than populism and trust in authoritarian currents.

Next week, I will be undertaking my first bilateral trip, as Minister for International Development Cooperation, to Georgia and Armenia. Two small and vulnerable, but also hope-inspiring countries in the southern Caucasus, in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU. Two countries in which many people are still living in poverty, above all in rural areas, but which have great potential for development. Sweden has long provided political and economic support to the countries in our eastern neighbourhood; my message as I now visit two of these countries is that the Government is increasing its commitment further, including in the form of expanded support to Armenia.

Through our regional strategy for reform cooperation with Eastern Europe, at present Sweden annually gives about SEK 210 million to Ukraine and about SEK 115–120 each to Moldova, Georgia and Belarus.

One of the main objectives of Sweden’s engagement in the region is to provide support to strengthen democracy, increase respect for human rights and more fully develop the rule of law. This is also a matter of improved economic development and closer ties to the EU, as well as an improved environment and strengthened resilience to environmental impacts and climate change. We are working together with civil society and public institutions.

The Government therefore intends to reallocate funds within the budget and thereby increase the total support to the countries in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and Turkey by SEK 250 million in 2019, of which SEK 150 million will be earmarked for an initiative for democracy. In light of the positive developments taking place in Armenia over the last year, we also intend to open a bilateral aid window this year.

This year, it is ten years since the Eastern Partnership between the EU and six Eastern European countries was formed through an initiative by Sweden and Poland. This important cooperation has had many positive results, but we can still do more. Each country has special challenges and conditions, but there are also shared regional possibilities for development. The current strategy for Sweden’s reform cooperation for Eastern Europe covers the years 2014 to 2020 and the Government will soon review how this cooperation can be developed in the years ahead.

We can already identify some areas of democracy assistance that will be prioritised:

1. Anti-corruption work must be strengthened. We will continue to contribute to functioning institutions and thereby to the conditions for economic and political growth.

Efforts against corruption and for the rule of law are fundamental in discussions about building confidence in democratic institutions. Reforms of the judicial chain are particularly important. Even so, this is basically a matter of poverty reduction. A society characterised by corruption becomes inefficient and does not supply the necessary public services needed to enable positive development.

2. Efforts for human rights must be further strengthened. Citizens’ freedoms and rights form the basis of a democratic society. In all partner countries, Sweden has a strong focus on gender equality, human rights and non-discrimination, including dedicated efforts to combat violence against women.

Support to state institutions must be complemented by support for civil society organisations in the region. Unfortunately, threats and violence against both women’s rights organisations and LGBTQ organisations are widespread. Sweden always raises these important questions in talks with representatives of governments in our partner countries. We do this to contribute towards the development of a pluralistic civil society.

3. Support to independent and free media will be further strengthened. Propaganda and disinformation, often with Russia as the source, risk undermining the political development of several countries in our vicinity. It is important that their people have access to free and independent journalism. We need to act effectively to expose and address disinformation in Sweden, the EU and our eastern neighbours.

In several countries, all major TV channels and newspapers are controlled by oligarchs with their own economic and political agendas. Our response must be to support independent investigative journalism and thus contribute towards a more pluralistic media landscape. If the countries in the region are to continue to develop towards stable democracies, we must admit that the security situation is difficult. For some time, security has been affected by both ongoing and frozen conflicts in the region, as well as by destructive behaviour, mainly by Russia. Continued reforms, particularly concerning the rule of law and the fight against corruption, form the most effective countermeasure to Russian destabilisation attempts. Sweden’s comprehensive reform support thus makes an important contribution towards strengthening the countries’ democratic resilience.

Despite the challenges, progress is being made in several areas in these countries. Closer ties to the EU have played a decisive role in the reform efforts and democratic development; positive reform results have been rewarded with closer EU cooperation. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have entered into association agreements with the EU, including far-reaching free trade agreements. These three countries have also fulfilled the requirements for, and been granted, visa exemption with the EU.

Despite the complex security policy situation, Georgia has continued its development in a democratic direction. We have seen democratic transfers of power and elections in which discussions have been heated and unease has occasionally been substantial over what kind of change may be about to take place, but where much of what has been gained, for example in the form of reduced corruption in daily life, has nevertheless been consolidated. In Armenia, an active democratisation process has been initiated after the ‘velvet revolution’ and transfer of power of 2018.

There is now a strong political will to carry out necessary reforms and strengthen democracy, as well as freedom of expression and other rights and freedoms. The fact that there is an increased proportion of women in the newly elected parliament is one example among many of the progressive force for change prevailing in the country. This is therefore the right moment for Sweden to increase its support and contribute towards a positive development in Armenia.

The Government is now strengthening its development cooperation with Eastern Europe. A democracy offensive with great chances of making a difference and creating better conditions for positive developments in the region and the whole of Europe.