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139 Working Paper

Democratization in Postcommunist Europe: Illiberal Regimes and the Leverage of International Actors

Mar 1, 2024 – Milada Anna Vachudova


The European Union (EU) may be presiding over the most successful democracy promotion program ever implemented by an international actor. Among postcommunist states with a credible EU membership perspective, we can see a significant though far from complete – convergence toward liberal democracy. This is all the more interesting since ten years ago many of these states had illiberal or authoritarian regimes. I focus in this article on the sources of political change in previously illiberal regimes before and after “watershed elections,” especially in the Western Balkans. I argue that over time the EU’s leverage strengthened the hand of liberal forces against illiberal ones by way of four mechanisms: creating a focal point for cooperation, providing incentives for adapting, using conditionality, and serving as a credible commitment for reform. Consequently, most political parties have eventually changed their agenda to make it compatible with the state’s bid for EU membership. I investigate the domestic conditions that have caused these mechanisms to function only weakly in Serbia and Bosnia.