Crises, protests and a glimpse of hope: The uncertain future of democracy in the Black Sea region in 2021

Coordinators: Vlada Subernitchi, Roland Kristo, Alexandru Damian.

The Black Sea region is situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Its geopolitical and geostrategic importance stems from its unique position as gateway to global trade, security, energy, and economic resources. The area is traditionally perceived by Russia as belonging to its sphere of influence and it has received increased attention as more and more countries began expressing their interest in a democratic path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

During the last decades, the image of this region has undergone substantial changes. Revolutions and pro-democracy protests reshaped the political landscape, highlighting people’s pro-European aspirations and their support for fresh and “uncorrupt” political figures. In contrast,  regional confrontations, frozen conflicts, illegal annexations and militarized pro-Russian separatist territories are hampering the development of the region, making it even more unstable and unattractive for long-lasting  partnerships.

The Black Sea region has long been a testing ground for the Russian Federation to exert its influence through state-owned media channels, local proxies and disinformation campaigns, all of which intensified in the aftermath of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. The Kremlin is using a wide array of tools, including hybrid warfare, economic blackmail and military threats, tailored to the  vulnerabilities of each country in the region, in order to undermine any process that may consolidate partnerships with the EU or NATO. 

The region is of strategic importance to both the EU and the US, with China also seeking to play a more important role. The other significant actor in the region, Turkey, although a member of NATO and long-standing EU candidate country, is at odds with its Western allies. 

While all countries in the region come with specific internal challenges, there are some joint patterns such as weakening of democratic institutions, attempts to undermine rule of law or fueling recurrent political crises. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting additional pressure at national and regional level and it provides an opportunity for third party actors to increase their influence in the region.

In 2020, we witnessed (1) large-scale protests in Bulgaria demanding the resignation of the government, (2) unprecedented protests and civil disobedience in Belarus, (3) local elections in Ukraine that revealed a weakening support for the current President’s party, (4) parliamentary elections in Georgia that sparked a long-lasting political crisis, (5) clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh or (6) presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova won by the pro-European, pro-reform candidate that triggered yet another political crisis.

This paper attempts to summarize emerging trends, anticipate events, and also game-changers between countries in the region and global players for the period 2021-2022 in the Black Sea region. It presents events with a significant potential of influencing perception of the regional dynamics and with potential implications at both national and regional level. This paper analyzes and attempts to predict the potential impact of events in the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. It portrays the authors’ understanding of other key events and initiatives with prospective impact in the region.

The report can be accessed here.

We wish to express our gratitude and appreciation to the following experts who contributed extensively to this report: 
Valeriu Pașa, WatchDog.MD (Moldova)
Andrei Lutenco, Center for Policies and Reforms (Moldova)
Maria Tomak, Media Initiative for Human Rights (Ukraine)
Leonid Litra, New Europe Center (Ukraine)
Sergiy Gerasymchuk, The Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” (Ukraine)
Ani Akhalkatsi, Open Society Foundation (Georgia)
Tamar Dekanosidze, Equality Now (Georgia)
Natia Kaldani, Civil Development and Research Institute (Georgia)
Vano Chkhikvadze, Open Society Foundation (Georgia)
Aydan Fuad, Institute for Democratic Initiatives/Fakt Yoxla (Azerbaijan)
Dimitrina Petrova, BOLD (Bulgarians Organizing for Liberal Democracy)
Octavian Manea, 22 Magazine (Romania)

This report is part of the project Fostering cooperation in the Black Sea Region: Setting up a transnational civic situation room implemented by CRPE and financed by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation of the German Marshall Fund.

The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.