The development of the European integration project asserted the importance of liberal democracy as one of the pillars of the European Union (EU). It has also been a key building block of foreign policy, through the enlargement process and European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The EU’s democracy promotion agenda has been largely successful in central and eastern Europe however, it has been put to the test in both the Western Balkans (WB) and the Eastern neighbourhood (EN), where the EU has struggled to promote sustainable democratisation. EU democracy promotion policies have been implemented in a rapidly changing international, regional and domestic environment, characterised by democratic breakthroughs and setbacks, as well as the influence of non-western actors. Democratic advances, such as those achieved as part of protest movements and colour revolutions, have sometimes been followed by reversals. Likewise, democratic backsliding trends have in some cases been turned around, raising hopes for the fate of liberal democracy in the WB and EN regions. 

Over the past decade the EU itself has been drastically changing, whether in terms of institutional machinery, policy toolbox or political dynamics. With the adoption of Council conclusions on democracy support in the EU’s external relations (2009), the EU’s strategic framework on human rights and democracy (2012) and the related action plans on human rights and democracy (2012-14; 2015-19; 2020-24), it has developed a toolbox for external democracy support. This new framework has been implemented alongside institutional changes brought about by the Treaty of Lisbon to increase the coherence and effectiveness of EU external action. However, despite its centrality to EU external action (as proclaimed in Article 21 TEU), supporting democracy abroad has proved increasingly challenging in light of the complex institutional EU set-up, the scattered policy instruments, the variety of approaches to democracy assistance among EU actors (including Member States) (European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), 2019), as well as unstable regional contexts (conflicts) and diverse foreign policy interests. EU democracy support policies have been criticised for failing to adjust to realities on the ground, and for lacking credibility through prioritising stability and security considerations over democracy support (Börzel & Lebanidze, 2017; Dandashly, 2015, 2018). 

Despite the diversity of political trajectories in the WB and EN, many of the tensions observed over the past decades have fed into poor representation of citizens’ interests, electoral fraud, frequent abuses of laws by officials, and mistrust vis-à-vis public institutions. Political instability, authoritarian entrenchment and the weak embeddedness of democracy across the EU’s neighbouring regions are also closely connected to economic, social and cultural dynamics. Both the WB and EN suffer from high levels of corruption, which has led to socio-economic tensions. In turn, socio-economic tensions can reinforce local demand for democratisation or feed political crises, instability, authoritarian entrenchment, as well as outbursts of violence and nationalism. External actors’ policies are thus filtered by domestic actors’ perceptions, narratives and strategies, and thereby yield a variety of effects that have yet to be fully grasped. Understanding how local actors interpret and use external influences is crucial to better understand the effects of external engagement (or lack thereof) on political regime trajectories. 

Furthermore, the EU’s democracy support in both regions operates in a domestic context targeted by other external actors whose political models and geopolitical interests sharply differ from the EU’s own normative script and objectives, such as Russia, China, and others (for example Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) (Bossuyt & Kaczmarski, 2021; Hackenesch, 2015; Risse & Babayan, 2015; Casier, 2021; Delcour, 2017; Noutcheva, 2017, Kaczmarski, 2017; Samokhvalov, 2017; Yakouchyk, 2016). Russia remains the main spoiler of EU democracy promotion, both at home and in the neighbouring regions and has been depicted as a ‘negative actor’ and a ‘black knight’, weakening democratic perspectives in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood (Tolstrup, 2009, 2014, 2015). However, Russia has also been found to de-facto work towards (even if unintendedly) the objectives of western democracy promoters in countries like Georgia and Ukraine (Delcour & Wolczuk, 2015). China, for its part, has cautiously expanded its efforts at influencing the European information space through trying to promote its own narratives and interests, inter alia undermining democratic processes and supressing critical voices (Eastern Europe Studies Centre, 2024).

In addition to the internal-external dynamics, both WB and EN countries have suffered from conflicts that have affected their democratic transition and consolidation. The EU has had to adapt to this volatile and complex environment, which has been characterised by uncertainties and risks. Complexities in the international environment involve ‘unknown and/or uncertain attributes’ of opponents that push policy makers to operate in a foggy situation involving ‘high-risk calculation’ (Jarvis, 2011, p. 297). The terms ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’ can mean different things to different people. For Knight, risk can mean ‘a quantity susceptible of measurement’ (Knight, 1921, pp. 19–20). Uncertainty, in contrast, has an unmeasurable quality to it (Knight, 1921, p. 20). Uncertainty can therefore be limited to non-quantifiable cases in comparison to risk, which can be more quantifiable (Knight, 1921, p. 20). Katzenstein and Seybert (2018) use the terminology of calculable versus incalculable to capture the distinction between the domain of risk characterised by calculable expectations about the future, and the domain of uncertainty defined by its unforeseeable qualities (Katzenstein and Seybert, 2018, p. 85).

The differentiation between risk and uncertainty has significant implications for policymakers, as it influences their ability to handle foreseeable shocks versus unpredictable events. Under conditions of risks, policy makers and relevant stakeholders operate in the domain of the expected and predictable. They are aware of the consequences of certain occurrences and can attach probabilities to different eventualities. In such scenarios, they find themselves in an environment where they have adequate information that can help them estimate the risks and plan accordingly the resources at their disposal. In complex but predictable environments, policy makers act with the intention of exerting control over future outcomes, i.e. they exercise what Katzenstein and Seybert (2018) refer to as control power.

Under conditions of uncertainty, policy makers must be creative and utilise the tools that they have at their disposal in innovative ways to handle unpredictable scenarios. The concept of protean power has emerged as a framework to understand how individuals, organisations, and states navigate such dynamic and uncertain environments. Protean power, as conceptualised by Katzenstein and Seybert (2018) refers to ‘practices of agile actors coping with uncertainty’ (Katzenstein & Seybert, 2018, p. 80). Protean power stems from the ability of actors to shape their environments by leveraging a combination of resources, strategies, and networks, and by innovating and improvising in situations of unexpected developments. This is reflected in flexibility, adaptability, resilience and transformation in the face of sudden shocks to the status quo. Power in such contexts is generated through the surprising actions and self-transformation of agile actors who try to steer the course of uncertainty. 

Our analysis of control and protean power starts with acknowledging the distinction between risk and uncertainty in decision-making as suggested by Katzenstein and Seybert (2018). The former is connected to the realm of predictable and foreseeable occurrences whereas the latter is experienced because of the potentiality of unpredictable and unexpected change. Classifying events and situations as representing risks versus uncertainties is not easy. In retrospect, we can make relatively safe assumptions about political life as risky or uncertain, but we cannot be sure that policy makers at the time have experienced the environment as risky or uncertain in the same way as we describe it years later. We therefore try to contextualise the events and occurrences in the Western Balkans and the eastern neighbourhood that have spurred the EU into action over the course of the last 30 years, keeping in mind ‘the fluidity of real-life situations that often oscillate between risk and uncertainty’ (Katzenstein and Seybert, 2018, p.85) and providing an expert reading of predominant perceptions of risks and uncertainties at the time of the events.

Likewise, when we distinguish between the effects of control power, linked to the domain of risk, and the effects of protean power, generated in the context of radical uncertainty (Katzenstein and Seybert, 2018), we are cognisant of the interplay between the two types of power and their interdependent and even reinforcing qualities. Protean power often leans on control power capabilities, while control power resources are often necessary for generating protean effects. Our analysis is in this sense both guided by the main conceptual framework offered by Katzenstein and Seybert and sensitive to the complexity of the empirical contexts that we deal with. 

In the context of EU democracy promotion, we will analyse the EU policies in the WB6 and the three new candidate countries from the EN (EN3) through two stages: democratisation and autocratisation. After the fall of communist regimes, countries in both regions have gone through a process of democratisation, as well as a more recent regress into autocratisation. The EU and other external actors such as the US, China, Russia and Turkey have engaged with these countries and these processes in various forms along the way. Over the past three decades, the EU has been a prime democracy promotor in the WB and EN – a commitment reflective of its broader foreign policy objectives laid down in the Treaties. However, this pursuit has not been devoid of external risks and radical uncertainties, both expected and unexpected, which have shaped the domestic and international landscape for democracy promotion in these regions since the early 1990s.

On the one hand, calculated external risks include geopolitical shifts, such as political interference in the WB6 and EN3 countries by other international or regional actors like Russia, China, Turkey; escalation of lingering regional conflicts; and economic shocks that pose conceivable challenges to the domestic democracy agenda. On the other hand, radical uncertainties encompass unforeseen events, geopolitical surprises (such as (some) wars and conflicts), and unexpected social and political upheavals (such as the colour revolutions), which have added an element of unpredictability to the EU’s endeavours and brought more external threats to EU strategies in the region. In its response to all these risks and uncertainties, in terms of democracy promotion, the EU, as this paper shows, has focused mostly on its traditional tools and polices, i.e. more control (traditional) power. 

This paper first investigates the risks and uncertainties that have affected the EU’s democracy promotion in the WB6 and EN3 over the last 30 – 35 years. It then examines the control power tools the EU has used and the innovations and improvisations it has employed in response to the dynamic and complex nature of the political landscape in these regions.

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