Defeating Authoritarianism, Bottom-up: Best Practices



  • Rafal Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw, Former Candidate for President, Poland
  • Dániel Hegedűs, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • Martina Smuclerova, Senior Fellow in International Law, Ambis University/Sciences Po
  • Tomislav Kezarovski, Investigative Journalist, North Macedonia
  • Eileen O'Sullivan, Deputy Mayor of Frankfurt

Moderator: Benjamin Novak, New York Times


Championing the cause of liberal democracy in an authoritarian regime is a daunting and precarious task, which especially holds true for Central and Eastern Europe. While the region was once the beacon of democratic change, Europe was clearly not ready for the semi-authoritarian tide that characterizes some of its countries. The global state-of-play between democracy and autocracy is also concerning, since regime changes alone hardly lead to genuine democratization. Over the past years, the world has seen a number of pro-democracy movements, however, their capability to achieve genuine transformation depends on a number of political and social factors.

Summary / Main findings

  • “Bad guys learn as well” – authoritarian systems operate with new skillsets (digital oppression, surveillance, disinformation, etc.) to oppress aspirations for democracy.
  • Central and Eastern Europe faces an authoritarian/populist challenge not only in Poland and Hungary but across most countries of the region.
  • The authoritarian tide in CEE is especially concerning, given that the region was leading to fight for democracy during and after the fall of the USSR.
  • The European Union is actively experimenting with ways to counter democratic backsliding, with the effort to tie EU funds to the rule of law (ROL) being the most visible.
  • However, Brussels’ experience in dealing with authoritarian heads of state shows that the EU is not fit to handle authoritarian challenges and deal with such situations.
  • The global competition between democracy and autocracy shows there is not much to celebrate.
  • In recent years, only two regime changes brought down authoritarians (in Sudan and Algeria). Pro-democracy movements in most cases failed to achieve full democratization (such as in Belarus and Hong Kong). Brining down authoritarian regimes is a necessary condition, but not sufficient as the case of the Arab Spring shows.
  • At the same time, there is a new breed of popular/pro-democracy movements. They are more horizontal in leadership and more widespread in terms of age and geography. The problem with these movements is that they are very hard to unify around social demands.

Recommendations/ Ideas

  • Consider the importance of the post-pandemic world as “you can’t tweet your way out of the pandemic.” Covid-19 accountability will challenge more incumbents, including authoritarians, as it happened in Belarus.
  • Add more horizontality to popular movements: the more horizontal a movement is, the higher chances the movement has for becoming durable.
  • Find clear demands and ensure discipline: widespread popular movements are extremely hard to unify, which is why there needs to be a balance between horizontality and the influx of new people coming into the movement.
  • Use instruments of international law/community: Various instruments can contribute to the fall of authoritarians, such as sanctions, criminal procedures, humanitarian missions, as well as international bodies of the UN.
  • “If you want to understand world affairs, break it down to individuals”: all systems are run by people, placing more emphasis on this factor could be beneficial.
  • Politicians should lead by example and focus on real challenges such as climate change, jobs security, health and education to show that they are more efficient as leaders than populists are.
  • Galvanize civil society and engage the youth: the latter is crucial to empowering democracy, while change depends on the younger generations.
  • Increase organic electoral cooperation between NGOs and pro-democracy forces -> they provide extra legitimacy (but it is not sustainable in the long run, it could undermine NGOs’ independence).
  • Mobilize diaspora communities: they play a crucial role in voting against authoritarian/populist forces.
  • Apply “good polarization”: albeit a provocative term since polarization is often and rightfully perceived as negative, a healthy level of polarization can reframe elections as referenda on authoritarians.