Event Highlights: Are Economic and Judicial Sanctions Effective in Combatting Authoritarianism?

On Monday, February 21, the Center for the Study of Europe hosted a panel discussion with Bojan Bugaric, Professor of Law at Sheffield University; Javier Corrales, Professor of Political Science at Amherst College; and Fernanda Nicola, Professor of Law at American University, on the efficacy of economic and judicial sanctions in combatting authoritarianism. Moderated by Daniela Caruso, Jean Monnet Professor of Law at BU’s School of Law, the discussion centered around a project of Prof. Bugaric, currently a visiting researcher at the Center for the Study of Europe, looking at legal mechanisms to combat authoritarian diffusion, in particular on the international level.

Bugaric opened the session with an overview of the paper he is co-writing with Natasha Lindstaedt and David Trubek: Economic and Judicial Sanctions: Why These Tools Have Been So Ineffective. The paper looks at four countries and four different sanctions regimes in Russia, Venezuela, Poland, and Hungary in an effort to draw some conclusions, or general lessons, that take into account the very different contexts as well as the different local factors at play in the four countries. Focusing on the European examples, he pondered how it is that Poland and Hungary, two of the most developed eastern European democracies at the time of their accession in 2004, are leading the way in terms of democratic deconsolidation. And he described the hybrid nature of the two regimes, which are not typical autocracies and indeed bear many of the hallmarks of democracies, including popularly elected governments. He concluded his remarks with a look at some of the tools the European Union has at its disposal to counter democratic backsliding, from the use of article 7 (unlikely to succeed, especially with the new government in Italy) to different “soft law” mechanisms (for which the countries find work-arounds) to the withholding of financial resources.

Fernanda Nicola addressed some of the difficulties in drawing legal comparisons (around, say, best practices for sanctions) across four different contexts, laying out a political spectrum (from democracies to autocracies) approach for evaluating institutional policy choices based on which direction the country moves. She went on to talk about recent successes by the European Court of Justice combatting authoritarianism, working in collaboration with local lawyers and NGOs. She concluded with a discussion of positive sanctions, acknowledging their failures historically, but noting their potential, particularly in the Polish case via the withholding of Next-Gen recovery funds.

Javier Corrales focussed his remarks on Venezuela and the failure of sanctions – including an outright oil embargo in 2019 – to halt a process of democratic backsliding underway many years. As he explained, drawing on Adam Prezeworski’s work, in every authoritarian regime there are hard-liners and soft-liners. While the aim of sanctions is to embolden the soft-liners, when they fail, they have the opposite of the desired effect, transferring the advantage to the targeted regime and hardening the autocracy you were hoping to topple.


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