Assistant Secretary Donfried’s Remarks at
Gala Reception at American University of Bulgaria
Thursday, May 19, 2022
Published “as prepared”
Thank you very much for the warm welcome. I am thrilled to be here in Bulgaria, and I’m especially delighted to join you this evening to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the American University in Bulgaria — happy birthday!
As Ambassador Mustafa mentioned, AUBG has played a critical role here in Bulgaria since the university opened its doors in 1991. The university has trained entire generations of bright, motivated students who are now leaders in society, both in Bulgaria and across the region. I congratulate you on the profound impact AUBG has had, both inside and outside the classroom. You represent the very best in American values and educational excellence.
This evening, I would like to focus in particular on the launch of AUBG’s Center for Information, Democracy, and Citizenship.
This new initiative is so important and it could not come at a better time.
Democratic institutions are under threat, not only in Europe but across the globe. Freedom House reports that 2021 was the 16th year in a row that we saw global freedom in retreat.
What is behind this troubling trend?
First, there’s the alarming rise of autocrats who seek to justify their repressive policies and practices as a “more efficient way” to address today’s challenges. That’s how it’s sold.
Second, ever-increasing political polarization has emboldened fringe voices that seek to fan the flames of societal division.
Third and perhaps most worrying of all, we’re seeing increasing dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governance. Everyday citizens feel their elected leaders are failing to deliver for their needs.
I certainly agree when President Biden calls this the defining challenge of our time.
In the face of these grave threats, democracy needs champions. We need to come together, now more than ever, to defend democratic ideals and preserve the freedoms, peace, and prosperity underpinned by our Western values. We need institutions that equip the future leaders of Bulgaria and democracies everywhere to prioritize principles over power.
That is why the AUBG Center for Information, Democracy, and Citizenship is so critical. The CIDC will serve as a regional center of excellence and scholarship to confront and overcome threats to democracy. Through a range of academic and co-curricular programs, the CIDC will spur new research and insights into perennial challenges in democratic societies, as well as new dynamics such as cybersecurity, disinformation, and digital media.
I want you to know that the U.S. government will be your partner every step of the way. I know our Embassy is eager to join forces with you as CIDC programs take off, whether bringing expert U.S. speakers to the Center for academic debate or linking the Center with Fulbright exchange opportunities – the possibilities are endless.
And know that even more broadly, the U.S. government is doubling down on its commitment to democracy in Central Europe. A good example is Congress’s recent allocation of $20 million to help bolster democratic principles and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. Here in Bulgaria, that money will fund a project to encourage young people in rural areas to understand the value of civic participation; another project will strengthen journalistic resilience to Russian disinformation.
I don’t need to tell you why this matters. That is why I say with such conviction that your work matters — the work of AUBG; the work of the new Center for Information, Democracy, and Citizenship; the work of AUBG’s distinguished academic leaders and alumni; and the contributions of everyone assembled here as part of the broader AUBG family.
As President Biden stated on the International Day of Democracy: “No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final. Every gain made, every barrier broken, is the result of determined, unceasing work.”
The United States is no different. Our Constitution makes clear that we are committed to a continuous process of striving to make a more perfect union.
We’re not perfect — far from it — and we must always strive to live up to our highest ideals and principles. But without democracy, we have no ideals to strive for, and no mechanisms to strive to be better.
And by learning together, standing together, and acting together, democracies can meet and outpace the challenges of our age.
We are doing just that today in support of Ukraine.
The brave and resilient people of Ukraine have demonstrated extraordinary courage. They will not be subjugated to Putin or live under Russia’s boot. Putin cannot impose his will on 45 million Ukrainian citizens. A tyrant bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase the love of freedom beating in every human heart.
Russia will never see victory in its war against Ukraine, even as we mourn the people of Ukraine who have perished in the Kremlin’s needless and merciless war of aggression.
Historians will mark that Putin’s war against Ukraine was a strategic blunder that left Russia weaker and isolated on the world stage, that set back its own development by years.
In the contest between democracy and autocracy, the world’s democracies are rising to the moment.
This is the real test, and it’s going to take time. So, let us continue to draw inspiration from the courage of the people of Ukraine.
Thank you for everything you are doing to advance democratic principles of government and to shape the next generation of scholars and leaders who will carry forward the ever-needed work of strengthening democracy so that it lives up to its promise and meets the compelling challenges in our world.
Here’s to the next 30 years of success at the American University in Bulgaria.