The AURo-Atlantic Romania

The illusion generated by Romania’s pro-European political choice has led to a collective blindness towards the country’s backsliding from European values. Increasingly, one of our core security threats comes from within, rather than outside our borders. 

Romania’s accession to the European Union and NATO was backed by almost unanimous popular support, and throughout the years the country has maintained its position among the states which held the EU and the US in the highest esteem. One generation after another has learned in school that the Latin origins of the Romanian language and people (through which we are related to France, Italy and Spain, countries that many Romanians call home today) are defining for our national identity. Through the royal family we have become related to Europe once again.

The post-1989 strategic choice Romania made was firmly pro-Western, even during the times of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Năstase, when very little of what was happening in our country was reminiscent of the realities in the EU. The Bucharest-London-Washington axis was not derailed even by Brexit, Donald Trump or Liviu Dragnea. Currently, in the EU Parliament, Romania votes consistently along the lines promoted by the Western Franco-German nucleus, and is methodically avoiding any association with the democratic backslidings of other Eastern European states. Everything in our history and identity is European, and the pinnacle of our post-1989 aspirations was always to be sought in the West.

EU membership has brought us the possibility to work and study in the West. In spite of repeated and considerable pressures on the rule of law and democracy, over the past years Romanians have supported the anti-corruption agenda, whether at the ballot or in the streets through protest. Romania’s presence at the head of the fastest-growing EU economies has been constant in recent years, its GDP increasing eightfold since the 1990s. We are among the most reliable European countries regarding the NATO defence expenditure pledges.

The forest of backwardness hidden behind the European trees

In such a context, how could one ever suspect that we are anything but the quintessential expression of Euro-enthusiasm? We have fed ourselves with the illusion that the only possible direction was ‘further and further to the West’; that modernisation and Europeanisation are inevitable processes; that we are invulnerable to the problems faced by our neighbours – from the rise of the far-right and the intolerance towards migrants and minorities of any kind, to the slide into authoritarianism, the spread of Russian propaganda and attempts at destabilisation, simply because ‘we are so pro-West and anti-Russian’.

There is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity.

Notwithstanding these realities which some of us share, there is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity. The political class is using the pro-European discourse opportunistically, rather than with the purpose of genuinely promoting a set of values to Romanian society. The policies adopted in the past decades have effectively marginalised the people that do not live in large urban centres, and thus see themselves trapped in a context that does not offer them many of the opportunities that promised to be so abundant at the time of the country’s accession to the European Union: a country with families split between those that have left to a seek better income in the West and those that have stayed and have been supported by them, a country in which some of us have prospered because of the new economic trends, whilst others have felt overwhelmed by changes that we did not understand and that nobody prepared us for.

The success of AUR, inconceivable until recently, as well as all the instances of ultraconservative and antidemocratic actions are primarily a consequence of this trend.

The traditional parties have fostered a radical electorate behind their democratic rhetoric

Until the moment the exit poll in December’s parliamentary elections was announced, the Romanian media’s interest in the AUR party was close to zero. The shock generated by the collective realisation that a party unknown to most people was to become the fourth-largest political force in the country generated an avalanche of articles that either presented the profile of the AUR candidates and their most outrageous declarations, or commented in an alarmist tone on the consequences of Romania’s entry in the ranks of the European states with extremist representation in their parliaments. However, all these approaches are distant from the essence of the problem.

The Romanian electorate with sympathies towards populist or nationalist narratives is not new. Although the 9% score obtained by AUR may seem very high, in the parliamentary elections with the lowest turnout since the Romanian Revolution this translated into little more than around 540,000 votes. This number seems less impressive if compared with the one million votes received by PPDD in the 2012 elections, when this (now-defunct) party capitalised upon the ongoing hardships associated by the economic crisis through its staunchly populist discourse.

AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel.

The duplicitous rhetoric used by Romania’s main political parties is one of the reasons why this segment of the population has remained largely under the radar in the past years. Hence the Social Democratic Party (PSD), along with smaller parties such as PRO Romania or ALDE, and even the National Liberal Party (PNL), have adopted a nominally democratic pro-European rhetoric meant to gain the sympathy, or at least the trust, of Romania’s international partners. At the same time, these same groups have not shied away from adopting socially conservative and even antidemocratic positions when this promised some easily obtained electoral points. In fact, such electorates were actively cultivated.

Apart from social values, the main parties have also pushed for policies that led in the end to an uneven, imbalanced development. After three decades when PSD, nominally a social-democratic party, has regularly governed Romania, our country is still at the very bottom of the risk of poverty rankings in the EU: according to Eurostat, in 2018, 23.5% of Romanians were in a difficult or very difficult financial situation. At the same time, although the PNL defines its vision as promoting a ‘respect for diversity’, among others, this party voted almost unanimously in favour of the illiberal 2018 referendum aimed at banning same-sex marriages in Romania. It is also fairly clear that repeated declarations with nationalist and anti-Hungarian undertones by some PNL leaders did not do much in helping promote the party as a defender of liberalism in our society.

Although it may seem that the rise of AUR comes from its clear, simple and ideologised discourse, this dimension comes only second among the factors that have contributed to its success. Although undeniably persuasive and well-adapted to the dynamics of social media, the discourse of AUR only represents a vehicle being used with great effectiveness. First and foremost, AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel. This void is the key, and not the fact that an agile and opportunistic actor has observed a vulnerability and has learned to exploit it. The current excessive focus on AUR, as if it represents a sole and exhaustive expression of political radicalisation in Romania, is moving the spotlight away from the true issue: the practices of the main parties and the failure of their development policies.

Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one).

AUR remains the least of our worries

What we are seeing is fundamentally a problem of social exclusion and absence of opportunities. The chronic distrust in the state authorities and moderate political forces, or even the quintessential institutions of representative democracy, stems from their sustained incapacity to generate prosperity. Although not alone in facing this issue, Romania has been performing exceptionally poorly in this chapter, year after year. In September 2020, essential democratic institutions received abysmal trust ratings: only 9.5% of Romanians trusted the country’s parliament, while 13.7% had confidence in the country’s government. 

If there were truly a climate of public trust in the country’s institutions, the conspirational and anti-system discourse of AUR could not have resonated in such a way. Their nationalist and illiberal rhetoric lacks rigour if it is not assembled upon a frame of distrust and alienation amongst segments of the society. Unfortunately, the unequal socio-economic evolution of our country has led precisely to this reality. 

Between 2014 and 2019, Romania prided itself in one of the biggest GDP increases in the EU, over 40%. In recent years, some areas of the country have experienced a remarkable growth, with standards of living coming to a par with those in Western Europe. According to Eurostat, in 2019 the Bucharest-Ilfov area had a GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) larger than that of cities such as Helsinki or Berlin. The contrasts within the country, however, are enormous. Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one). All other regions of our country feature on the lower third of the EU’s development ranking.

Romania has a major social mobility issue as well. According to the 2020 Global social mobility index from the World Economic Forum, Romania is the second most difficult place in the EU to improve your social and financial situation if you are from a low-income background. Only Greece, a country devastated by an economic crisis spanning almost 10 years, fares worse among EU states at this indicator.

Marginalisation – a national security risk

An analysis conducted in 2016 by the Romanian National Institute of Statistics revealed that the counties with the largest percentage of former residents that have emigrated over the shortage of jobs were in the province of Moldova. In Neamț, the number of emigrants almost equals the number of existing workplaces in the county. There is no coincidence that such regions lacking any opportunities have the constituencies where AUR obtained its best results. For as long as the socio-economic developments leave behind winners and losers separated by such a large gap, the conditions favouring the success of nationalist parties will linger on. And as economic and political results are oftentimes attributed to the European Union in the public psyche, the resentment towards a West perceived as not delivering on expectations can be expected to rise (which will also be amplified by parties keen to find a scapegoat for all of the country’s misfortunes). 

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation.

Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation. When people see themselves systematically neglected by conventional political actors and the institutions that are meant to serve them, they turn their hopes and support to whichever options promising a change. AUR has communicated effectively; it knew who its target-audience was; it has indeed been helped by the context of heightened uncertainty and distrust amplified by the pandemic, and it has exploited the popularity of the church in the countryside to attract the most visible and vocal part of the dissatisfied. However, many more have remained under the diffuse influence of PSD, PNL and their smaller satellites, where they serve as an exploitable demographic that is much larger than the 500,000 votes which AUR won last time.

The Romanian version of the article was published on Adevărul.

About the projectSupported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.

Let’s make a folder. What do we know about AUR, the new golden party of the Romanian far right?

The far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) was the big surprise of the recent Romanian parliamentary elections. Against a background of low turnout (32%) it obtained 9% of the vote. Only two months ago, during the recent local elections, it had only 1%[1].

Moldova: the first ‘pas’ forward

The acronym for the group led by Maia Sandu – PAS – has a symbolic meaning in the context of the latest elections. This word means ‘step’ in Romanian, and indeed Sandu’s victory, although it was ground-breaking for all the reasons mentioned below, is only the first step on the way towards possible serious changes to the political and social situation in Moldova. On 15 November, Maia Sandu, the former prime minister of Moldova and the leader of the pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the second round of the presidential elections in Moldova with 57.75%. At the same time her rival Igor Dodon, the outgoing president and the informal leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) won 42.25% of the vote. 

New elites and kingmakers from abroad

November’s elections were ground-breaking in many respects. Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups. Dodon, for example, is perceived by many as a corrupt representative of the oligarchic elites and the defender of the ‘old order’, in which the state serves primarily as an instrument for the enrichment of a specific group of people. On the other hand, the first three presidents of the republic between 1990 to 2009 had previously held high positions in the Communist Party of Moldova, the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Also for the first time, the Moldovan people, who are quite conservative and have a traditional view of social roles, decided to entrust not simply a woman, but an unmarried and childless one, with the position of head of state. The gender issue, and especially Sandu’s matrimonial status, has been exploited many times in recent years by her political opponents. The absence of spouse or children allowed her political opponents to spread groundless rumours about her sexual orientation. 

Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups.

Another novelty is the role played by the diaspora. Moldovan emigrants, estimated at up to one million in number, have always shown interest in the elections held in their homeland, but the scale of their participation has never been as massive as it was in November 2020. In the second round of elections, over 260,000 votes were cast in polling stations abroad. This is twice as much as in the first round, and four times more than in the first round of the 2016 elections. Foreign votes accounted for up to 15 percent of all ballots cast. A quarter of the vote for Maia Sandu came from abroad. There is no doubt that one of the important factors that led to such a large mobilisation of the diaspora in the second round was the critical, if not mocking, comment made by President Igor Dodon after the results from the first round were released; he called the Moldovan emigrants a “parallel electorate”, and suggested that they do not fully understand the situation in the country. It is worth noting that this large-scale mobilisation for Sandu almost exclusively applied to Moldovan emigrants living in the West, i.e. the EU, Great Britain and the USA. These countries accounted for over 90% of all the votes cast outside the republic. 

Meanwhile, the Moldovan émigrés in Russia – although estimated at up to half a million – remained very passive. In the second round of elections, fewer than 14,000 of this group went to the polls; their votes accounted for only 5% of all those cast by the diaspora. Moreover, the myth that Moldovans living in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inclined to almost unanimously support pro-Russian candidates was also broken. Although Igor Dodon won in Russia with a total of 75% of the votes, the 25% Sandu won there should be considered a huge success and proof that the views of the local electorate are evolving.

The fragmentation of the left and corruption fatigue

The final result of the elections was an obvious surprise for Dodon. Even though the incumbent president had realised he could lose the race, he did not expect his rival to obtain such a crushing advantage over him. One of the key reasons for the outgoing president’s failure is the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against him. The de facto leader of the PSRM is seen by many as an associate and informal political ally of Vlad Plahotniuc, an ex-oligarch who lost power in June 2019 and fled the country. Plahotniuc is suspected to have been involved in numerous frauds (including the embezzlement of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014), and he is the virtual embodiment of corruption in the eyes of the Moldovan public. Sandu took advantage of Dodon’s negative image and focused her campaign not on the usual geopolitical issues that divide the nation (the choice between East or West), but on the corruption fatigue that unites people beyond their political differences. 

Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic.

This was one key to her success, but there were other issues that undermined Dodon’s position. One of the most important was the return of Renato Usatîi, the populist, pro-Russian leader of ‘Our Party’, onto the Moldovan political scene. Six years ago, this politician was the socialists’ main rival on the Moldovan left. In 2014, just a few days before voting, a court (presumably influenced by Plahotniuc) banned Usatîi’s party from participating in the parliamentary elections, which enabled the socialists to achieve a spectacular success. Soon after, Usatîi left Moldova and moved to Russia. He only came back to his homeland in the second half of 2019, after Plahotniuc had fled the country. His return initiated the fragmentation of the Moldovan political left. The leader of ‘Our Party’, who has been highly critical of Dodon’s presidency, managed to rebuild his support in just over a year and win up to 17% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This allowed Sandu to enter the second round in first place, which demobilised the socialist voters. Moreover, Usatîi asked his electorate to vote ‘against Dodon’ in the runoff elections. As a result, many of his supporters decided not to vote in the second round, or to cast their vote for Sandu, which – in both cases – contributed to victory for the leader of PAS.

What can a president do?

The limited prerogatives that the Moldovan constitution gives to the president will not allow Sandu to implement real structural reforms. However, this does not mean that her victory has no political significance. From her new post Sandu will be able to observe more closely what is happening behind the scenes and monitor the government’s actions. She will also gain access to materials prepared by the intelligence services. The office of the presidency will also provide her with greater recognition and access to the media. This in turn will boost the image of the opposition. She will also be able to influence the country’s foreign policy, which would be particularly important, as in the months to come Sandu will surely focus on diplomatic activities and try to improve Moldova’s relations with its Western partners from the EU, as well as its immediate neighbours Romania and Ukraine. 

There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run.

Apart from corruption, Sandu laid the emphasis in her campaign on social issues and improving the citizens’ standard of living. Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic. Not only will this have a positive effect on the image of Sandu and the opposition (as the electorate will see it as a direct benefit of her victory), but it will also improve the perception of Romania in Moldova, which was damaged by the fact that in recent years Bucharest unofficially but clearly supported Plahotniuc. There is also no doubt that support from the EU (which will help improve the quality of life of the country’s inhabitants) will be of great importance in building confidence in the pro-Western opposition. Relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate, despite the new president’s desire to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Sandu will find it hard to avoid difficult topics such as the issue of Russian troops in Transnistria or the status of this region, as shown also by her recent media statements, which have elicited negative reactions from Moscow.

On the home front

PAS, strengthened by Sandu’s victory, will call for parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible. To start real reforms and deliver on Sandu’s election promises, the pro-European opposition needs not only the president, but also a parliamentary majority. This will not be an easy task, although the situation in the Moldovan parliament seems to be favourable. The Chicu government does not currently have a majority in the chamber. After Dodon’s dramatic failure, his party is no longer interested in early parliamentary elections, although the incumbent president had supported them just a few months ago. The socialists are not only afraid of the pro-Western electorate motivated by Sandu’s victory; more importantly, they realise that in the next elections they will undoubtedly face ‘Our Party’, which – judging by Usatîi’s result – may take away a lot of votes from PSRM. It is therefore clear that in this situation the socialists will attempt to rebuild their majority and maintain the current composition of parliament, at all costs and for as long as possible. Even though this will be difficult, there has been speculation about alleged agreements between the socialists and representatives of the Şor Party, together with a group of deputies affiliated to Plahotniuc. The true position of the ‘DA’ Platform Party led by Andrei Năstase is also uncertain. This grouping, although nominally pro-Western, has found itself increasingly at odds with PAS. Moreover, given the low support for ‘DA’, early elections could pose a threat to this party’s presence in the parliament. All these factors may foster the establishment of cooperation between ‘DA’ and the Socialists. There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run. This controversial politician, who has strong but very obscure ties to Russia, will probably try to position himself as Sandu’s ally in the fight against corruption and the oligarchy, although in geopolitical terms he is an opponent of PAS. As a result, his actions may compromise the opposition’s pro-reformist efforts. Establishing any cooperation with him or his associates should therefore be undertaken very carefully, if at all. Otherwise, PAS risks a repeat of the scenario from the end of the second half of 2019, when it was pushed out of power after just five months due to an agreement between the Socialists and the Democratic Party, which was previously led and sponsored by Plahotniuc.

Murder, Blackmail and Corruption: Why CEE needs the Magnitsky Act

What action can the CEE countries take against the “bad guys?” How to send out a clear message that political corruption, blackmail, organ trafficking, rape and other crimes have no place in our countries? And how can we protect ourselves from the worst criminals of the world?

The answer has three words: the Magnitsky Law. An unprecedented global initiative to pass legislation that would allow national governments to impose personal sanctions on human rights violators resembles a thriller movie more than anything.

Who was Sergey Magnitsky, the man whose name probably makes Vladimir Putin grind his teeth in anger? Why is there an undeclared hybrid war raging around this piece of legislation? And how can passing the legislation help the CEE region? 

The story of Sergey Magnitsky – an auditor who changed the world

Eleven years ago, in November 2009, Sergey Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. The reason was neither old age, nor an unfortunate deadly disease. He was tortured, denied medical care, eventually dying of a gall bladder infection. Until the very last moment, he did not stop believing in justice and the positive power of rule of law. Each week, he submitted lengthy official complaints about the state of his health and the way he was treated, requesting contact with his family and proper medical care. During 358 days in detention, he wrote over 400 complaints and petitions seeking justice.

His name is often mentioned together with Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as a straightforward example of  yet another Russian who paid with his own life for fierce criticism of the Russian political regime. Yet Sergey Magnitsky was never a member of the Russian opposition. He was a lawyer and accountant, working for British billionaire businessman Bill Browder and his hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management, which was until 2004 the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Before his arrest, Magnitsky was investigating a 230 million dollar web of financial fraud, allegedly involving Russian government figures misappropriating funds related to companies which were confiscated from Browder by a criminal group with close ties to Kremlin representatives. His investigations were completely apolitical, purely business-motivated.

Yet in November 2008 three representatives from the Russian Interior Ministry arrested Magnitsky. Ironically, the Interior Ministry officials who arrested him worked for the same officer he testified against. A year later, Magnitsky died in prison. His death has become a symbol of the fight against corruption and the oppression of human rights all over the world. Magnitsky was a tax lawyer and auditor who changed the world, and one who may yet change it even more.

Putin’s Biggest Enemy and International Crusade for Passing the Magnitsky Act

Magnitsky’s death set in motion a spiral of events no one could have anticipated. However, if there was ever a man who could make the impossible possible, Magnitsky’s boss – Bill Browder – was a likely candidate. This billionaire with influential connections at the highest levels of global politics turned almost overnight from one of the biggest advocates of appeasement with the Russian regime and the biggest foreign investor in Russia into, as some call him, Putin’s number one enemy.

His motivation was quite straightforward: there were no legislative tools to bring criminals responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice. So he decided to persuade the British and the American government to change the legal gamefield. Simply, this law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on individual human rights abusers — particularly those who played a role in Magnitsky’s false arrest, torture and death. However, eventually he decided to turn this into a global initiative, with the ultimate goal of persuading governments all over the world to implement their own version of a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. Browder has spent the last nine years fiercely campaigning for the law, and his efforts are bearing fruit.

Explaining the Magnitsky Act

Proponents call it the first solely human rights violations-focused sanction mechanism in the world. The Magnitsky Act, specifically, is a piece of legislation allowing individual countries to impose personalised sanctions on individuals violating human rights anywhere in the world. The measures which can be implemented include the power to freeze bank accounts and other assets, and ban individuals from entering a given country.  As a result, the Magnitsky Act can be perceived as a tool to strengthen the foreign policy toolkit of individual countries. So far, seven countries have implemented the legislation: the US, Canada, the UK, and the three Baltic countries; the newest addition to this group is Kosovo, which passed the Magnitsky Act at the beginning of 2020.

However, it is not always sunny in the realm of human rights protection, and the piece of legislation does have a number of forceful critics too.

One of the strongest arguments against it concerns a fear of unnecessary antagonisation of Russia, while other critics call the legislation superfluous, given that there are already a number of recognised and effective international sanction regimes under the auspices of international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations.

A final common argument against it is the altogether defeatist retort that “sanctions will not change anything.” Taking each of these in turn however, reveals these concerns as largely misplaced and unfounded.

a) Universal Human Rights Protection Tool

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the law „a purely political and unfriendly act“. And just days after the US act was passed, Russia retaliated through deploying a number of countermeasures, including barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

More importantly however, even though the initiative was originally envisaged as a tool against a criminal group with close connections to Russian police and the ministry of finance, responsible for Magnitsky’s death, it has since developed much beyond that. Currently, sanctions apply to 148 individuals and entities suspected of human rights abuses and corruption worldwide.

The US government, for instance, has unilaterally imposed sanctions on 94 individuals and 102 entities from 24 countries, including South Sudan, Uganda, Iraq and Cambodia. Among the individuals listed, we find Myanmar officials responsible for the genocide of Rohingya; doctors and Chinese officials involved in illegal organ trafficking of Uyghurs; and warlords from Africa.

The most prominent individuals listed on the US Magnitsky sanctions list include: Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the daughter of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who is involved in political corruption; 17 individuals involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and, billionaire Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler.

b) Targeted Sanctions Mechanism

To address the second counterargument, unlike many international sanctions regimes, the Magnitsky Act, by targeting individuals rather than entire countries or sectors, avoids ‘broad-brush’ sanctions that can disproportionately affect more vulnerable citizens in target states.

This targeted approach also enables the direct sanctioning of malicious individuals and networks, even from countries that are considered to be allies or crucial for broader foreign policy priorities. For instance, the 2017 and 2018 US Global Magnitsky sanctions listed above involved Saudi and Israeli nationals, individuals from countries which are strategic allies of the US and, thus, unlikely to be the subject of broader international financial sanctions.

It is true that the EU already has the power to impose sanctions to promote international peace and security, prevent conflict, fight terrorism and defend democratic principles and human rights. Sanctions can be imposed upon governments of third countries (as is the case of Iran, Burma, Venezuela and others), or non-state entities and individuals. However, this current mechanism seems to be insufficient in ever changing geopolitical environments, and the context of challenges that democracies must face.

The EEAS has already undertaken steps to prepare a new sanction mechanism based upon the same principle as the Magnitsky Act.

It is very likely though that the EU will decide to omit Magnitsky’s name, to avoid creating an impression that the law is primarily anti-Russian. This would go directly against the main idea behind the new EU sanctions regime proposal, which is to enable the EU to impose visa bans or to freeze the assets of individuals from any country in the world who commit serious human rights violations and abuses.

Among the proposed crimes that would trigger such sanctions are: extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. If the law passes, this would send a strong message to those who may commit or be complicit in abuses that the financial centres and currencies of the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the US) are off limits.

Nevertheless, some EU member states still choose (or have chosen to) pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. One of the reasons for this might be that this piece of EU legislation is not without its flaws – the proposal only applies to human rights abuses and doesn’t cover corruption like the US version does.

The original version of the Magnitsky Act in the UK does not cover corruption either. The most likely explanation is that they prefer not to rely solely on the EU’s often slow and cumbersome foreign policy processes. Indeed, the Magnitsky Act can actually strengthen the foreign policy even of the member countries of the EU and make it less dependent on it. The Act enables national countries to pass sanctions more quickly and flexibly or pass them against those individuals whom a majority of EU members might not agree about.

c) Projecting Strong Global Message

It is important to maintain that the Act is not simply a symbolic ‘virtue signal’ of international law. Personalised sanctions are of course only one part of the anti-corruption puzzle, but they are an important tool in the arsenal. Such sanctions make it more difficult for criminals to launder illicit gains or continue to do such business in dollars, pounds or euros, the most common global currencies.

They will enable countries to freeze the bank accounts and assets of individuals within their own territories or local banks. They are a successful example of concrete action being taken against the corrupt and the worst human rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts the most – in their pocket. Indeed, as Browder himself states: “These types of individuals keep their money in the West, where property rights and rule of law exists. This led to the idea of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes assets and bans visas of human rights violators.”

Additionally, the inconvenience of being denied entry to the US, Canada, UK or the EU is also a significant penalty, as is the considerable stigma that comes with being sanctioned. Australia, for instance, is currently considering setting a new precedent in its version of the Magnitsky Act, by also including family members of targeted individuals into travel bans, such as children wanting to study at private schools and universities or parents seeking to go to hospitals.

In the words of Elaine Pearson, director of UN Human right watch: “By joining other countries with similar laws, Australia will be sending a strong message to abusive leaders everywhere that there are far-reaching consequences for their actions.”

Implementation in the CEE space

For Magnitsky-type laws to be effective and to have a meaningful impact, it is crucial that more states join in and introduce an equivalent of the Magnitsky Act. Besides the EU, Australia and Sweden, three countries in the CEE region are currently taking steps to pass the law: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. What then must these countries do, in order to successfully implement the Magnitsky Act, and ensure that its detractors are proven wrong?

Czech Republic: a one-man crusade

In the Czech Republic, the crusade to get the legislation passed has largely taken the form of a one-man show. The legislation is currently being advocated for by one Member of the Czech Parliament – member of the Czech Pirate Party, vice chairman of the committee on defence and the foreign affairs committee, Jan Lipavský. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, social-democrat Tomáš Petříček, a supporter of the EU version of the Magnitsky Act, seems reluctant to embrace a Czech version of the legislation. This could be, at least in part, a result of political pressure from his own political party and from the Czech president, both of which are known for their closeness to autocratic regimes such as Russia and China.

The Pirate Party is in opposition and therefore has very limited options to get any piece of legislation passed. This means that the chances for passing and implementing the Magnitsky Act by the end of the current political mandate in October 2021 are very slim, to say the least. Similarly to the EU approach, Mr. Lipavský has also decided to omit the name “Magnitsky” in the title and simply name it “The Law on Human Right Protection.” Primarily, because it is against the Czech common practice to name laws after people. Secondly, for reasons akin to the EU’s; to avoid allegations of intentionally targeting only Russian officials.

Slovakia: an outsider agenda

For Slovakia, the Magnitsky Act bears a unique meaning. Until this day, Slovakia is the only country from the CEE region which has a citizen who has been directly targeted by the Magnitsky Act. The US administration has decided to add to its sanction list Marián Kočner, a Slovak oligarch who is directly responsible for the murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Maria Kušnírová in early 2018. Similarly to the Czech Republic, Slovakia also supported the European version of the Magnitsky Act.

Nevertheless, Slovak political representatives have indicated their interest in the Magnitsky Act before the decision made by Washington. Like in the Czech Republic, the main driving force behind the legislation was a group of MPs led by a member of the Slovak Parliament and leader of the Political Party “Together”, Miroslav Beblavý. One of the promises he made during the political campaign was the promise of passing this legislation if re-elected. During the late February 2020 parliamentary elections, the coalition of liberal parties Together and Progressive Slovakia did not pass the threshold for entering the parliament. With no other political party having the implementation of the Magnitsky Law on its agenda, it is very unlikely that there will be any significant progress on this matter in the foreseeable future.

Romania: a victim of political power play

Out of the three CEE countries in question, the Magnitsky Law proposal got the furthest in Romania, being presented on the floor of the Romanian Senate. The main initiators of this legislation were three members of the Save Romania Union (USR); Adrian Prisnel, Iulian Bulai, and Cristian Ghinea.

Fighting corruption is the most important topic for the third biggest Romanian party and so it made sense for the USR to make this human rights initiative their own. New sanctions were to be made more “flexible” than the older, country-based ones, and were therefore predicted to have a “strong psychological effect” on the abusers. The main punishment was supposed to be the visa ban and asset freeze.

However the proposal was primarily focused on severe human rights abuses. Similarly to the UK and EU Magnitsky Acts, the Romanian proposal did not list corruption as a crime. However, this might come as a surprise for many observers, given that the proposal came from the so-called “anti-corruption” party.

When the three MPs submitted their proposal to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Romanian Senate in April 2019, they may have expected a positive reaction from fellow MPs. This was partly because, in 2018, 43 Romanian MPs signed a petition urging the government to adopt a ‘Magnitsky Act’, imposing sanctions on human rights abusers. It was also because the draft had been signed as a sign of support by 33 MPs out of 136, most of them from their own faction, but also by three deputies from the ruling Social Democratic Party and two from the National Liberal Party, the second largest party. Thus, there was an indication of broader support. However, the draft was finally declined by the Committee and only members of the USR ended up supporting it.

In the Romanian case, some claim that the Magnitsky Law became a victim of political power play. Indeed, it may well have been viewed by other Romanian political forces as a potential internal political weapon in political battles with the Social Democrat Party and in the ongoing attempt by the USR to take over support from the National Liberal Party, while also reinforcing its position in its tenuous alliance with the PLUS party, another reformist entity led by former European Commissioner and technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș.

Another possible explanation is that maneuvering against the proposal may also have simply been an attempt to prevent further antagonising Russia, with relations between the two countries at their lowest point in decades and dialogue practically non-existent. However, the USR was not completely discouraged by their loss. In January 2020, the leadership of the USR announced that they would seek to reintroduce a new version of the law.

There has been no progress on this matter ever since. Partially also because according to some, there is a sense that institutions like the DNA (Anti-Corruption Directorate) are strong enough to handle corruption, including transborder.

Also, the state had shown the will in the past to sanction individuals, such as denying Dmitri Rogozin the right to transit Romanian air space. In conclusion, there is very little urgency or impulse to the Magnitsky act and it is very unlikely it will resurface in a foreseeable period of time.

Why it matters

There are also key reasons, specific to the CEE region, for passing this piece of legislation. Primarily, it is about enhancing an international order based on universal values, which is equipped with mechanisms for preventing their extortion.

CEE countries stand to gain from a rules-based order that has powerful enforcement mechanisms, as opposed to a more transactional system, where their negotiating power is likely to be limited. A piece of legislation strengthening their foreign policy in the name of human rights is an epitome of such an order and a logical addition to a national diplomatic toolkit of post-Soviet countries.

At a more profound level, the Magnitsky package, with its both human rights and anti-corruption dimensions, should become part of an expanded arsenal of tools to compete in the 21st century geopolitical arena. Creatively used, it can simultaneously be leveraged for deterrence purposes, but also for lawfare especially against those foreign adversaries that instrumentalise corruption to manoeuvre, exploit and weaponise certain vulnerabilities within the CEE space. The region is particularly prone to malign foreign interference via corruption, clientelism and lack of transparency. The comprehensive Magnitsky legislation could be seen as an important step in enhancing regional resilience to hybrid operations.

CEE: a hybrid target
Recent years have seen frequent hybrid operations intent on meddling in the internal affairs of CEE countries on the part of both Russia and China, clearly indicating that neither of them respects the sovereignty of the CEE region countries. Such influence operations include, but are not limited to, strategic corruption, espionage, blackmail, performed through hacking, as well as other forms of cyber attacks, including the spread of hostile propaganda and disinformation in both the public and virtual space – with a recent spike since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can recall attempts of espionage in Poland from Chinese-owned Huawei in 2019, the attempted state coup in Montenegro in 2017, and the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, to name but a few. Or the very recent “Koněv affair” where the decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and far-right civil actors.