Opening photo: Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia James Kulikowski (front right in orange tie), USAID Mission Director Susan Fritz (front center in yellow scarf), and senior European Union representative Peter Wagner (front left in purple tie) hold a joint meeting in Berdyansk, Ukraine, with representatives of recently formed civil society groups to discuss ways to improve city development in the Sea of Azov region. Photo by Nadiya Vertebna
By Jonathan Benton, Nicole Hollinshead, and Miki Templeton
Over the past 30 years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia (ACE) has led the coordination of the U.S. government’s (USG) effort to support the former communist countries in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia in their transition to free, democratic, prosperous, and market-oriented countries. A part of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR), also reporting to the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA), ACE operates under statutory authorities enacted by Congress in 1989 and 1992 and currently oversees approximately $1.3 billion annually in assistance to the 29 states of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe. Over this timeframe, 11 countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic region successfully transitioned away from bilateral U.S. civilian assistance and joined the European Union (EU). Serbia and Montenegro are negotiating accession chapters with the EU, and North Macedonia and Albania are on the verge of EU accession negotiations soon. The continued promotion of democratic and economic development for these partners remains a hallmark of ACE’s efforts.
With the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, Russia reemerged as a strategic adversary seeking to undermine progress and reassert its influence in the region using a full menu of antagonistic actions. With the enactment of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in 2017, Congress gave ACE the lead authority to counter malign Russian influence in the region via foreign assistance. As a result, programs countering disinformation and corruption, promoting transparency, diversifying energy sources, and building cybersecurity also became assistance priorities. Most recently, countering the People’s Republic of China government’s malicious influence has become an additional focus, expanding ACE’s role into the Arctic region.
Appointed in February 2019, Coordinator James Kulikowski heads an office of country assistance coordinators, subject matter experts, budget experts, and monitoring and evaluation advisors. ACE coordinates and funds wide-ranging programs building democracy, economic growth, security, and countering malign influence implemented through more than 40 bureaus and agencies.
“ACE has the unique ability to coordinate all aspects of assistance programming for each country in our area of operation,” said Kulikowski. “That gives ACE the opportunity to be agile and creative in targeting assistance to the particular needs and developments in each country. That is when we make our greatest contribution.”
In response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, ACE staff worked closely with posts in the region to rapidly respond to the many requests from governments across EUR and SCA, monitoring the development of programmatic interventions to address the pandemic and repurposing funding to support COVID-19-related needs. This included appeals from countries that had transitioned out of U.S. assistance and consequently had no mechanism to receive assistance funds. ACE and USAID worked closely to provide a rapid pandemic response to Italy. Additionally, ACE quickly took advantage of an emergency mechanism through the Department’s procurement specialists in Frankfurt to facilitate medical supply contracts for Central European and Baltic partners. As a result of ACE’s responsiveness and flexibility, and in coordination with the USAID and the Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance (F), USG agencies provided more than $262 million in COVID-19 assistance to populations in need in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia, including more than $142 million in Department and USAID supplemental resources, approximately $80 million in Department and USAID existing resources, and over $38 million in assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense.
In Ukraine, a key way to counter malign influence is to build up economic opportunities and democratic institutions. After the widely acclaimed free and fair elections in Ukraine in 2019, the newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky made clear a top priority was improving the lives of people in the East and the Southeast of the country heavily impacted by the ongoing conflict and the Russian Kerch Strait blockade of the Sea of Azov. ACE worked with USAID to enhance presence and development efforts first in the Donbas and then the Sea of Azov region. In the Sea of Azov region, USAID expanded assistance by an additional $20 million over three years in addition to a typical annual budget of $11.7 million. ACE continues to implement a whole-of-government approach to foreign assistance aimed at building inclusive societies that respond to the needs of all of their citizens.
Following the 2016 election, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev initiated several significant reforms to modernize Uzbekistan, with basic education envisioned as one of the key sectors critical to these efforts. In 2018, Uzbek government leaders outlined their plans to educate students to be fluent in English with information technology and critical thinking skills to attract foreign investment and create jobs. In 2019, ACE successfully secured $20 million to jumpstart these reforms and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to partnering with the Uzbek government. This commitment continues to this day.
In response to the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election in Belarus and the continuing brutal crackdown, ACE was at the forefront of the effort to support democracy, independent media, and human rights. Working with USAID and other interagency members, ACE helped identify more than $20 million in regional and global funds to bring to bear on the response. The United States also joined with 18 countries in supporting the creation of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus to gather evidence of human rights violations. These efforts complement the extensive diplomatic measures to maximize the U.S. response to these autocratic, anti-democratic developments in Belarus.
Thirty years later, ACE continues to connect strategy with funding to provide coordinated country and regional programs to build democratic, inclusive, prosperous, and independent countries and to uphold these central principles against backsliding to autocracy throughout the region. Whether supporting longer-term development or more immediate response to events, ACE’s coordination role is unique within the USG and critical to ensuring that the assistance it coordinates makes a difference in the lives and the future of the people in the region.
Jonathan Benton is a senior advisor; Nicole Hollinshead is the acting director for budget and administration; and Miki Templeton is a program analyst in the Office of the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia.