Tag: legislation

How to Undermine Russia’s War Capacity: Insights from Development Day 2023

Image from SITE Development Day conference

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues, the future of the country is challenged by wavering Western financial and military support and weak implementation of the sanction’s regime. At the same time, Russia fights an information war, affecting sentiments for Western powers and values across the world. With these challenges in mind, the Stockholm Institute for Transition Economics (SITE) invited researchers and stakeholders to the 2023 Development Day Conference to discuss how to undermine Russia’s capacity to wage war. This policy brief shortly summarizes the featured presentations and discussions.

Holes in the Net of Sanctions

In one of the conference’s initial presentations Aage Borchgrevink (see list at the end of the brief for all presenters’ titles and affiliations) painted a rather dark picture of the current sanctions’ situation. According to Borchgrevink, Europe continuously exports war-critical goods to Russia either via neighboring countries (through re-rerouting), or by tampering with goods’ declaration forms. This claim was supported by Benjamin Hilgenstock who not only showed that technology from multinational companies is found in Russian military equipment but also illustrated (Figure 1) the challenges to export control that come from lengthy production and logistics chains and the various jurisdictions this entails.

Figure 1. Trade flows of war-critical goods, Q1-Q3, 2023.

Source: Benjamin Hilgenstock, Kyiv School of Economics Institute.

Offering a central Asian perspective, Eric Livny highlighted how several of the region’s economies have been booming since the enforcement of sanctions against Russia. According to Livny, European exports to Central Asian countries have in many cases skyrocketed (German exports to the Kyrgyzs Republic have for instance increased by 1000 percent since the invasion), just like exports from Central Asian countries to Russia. Further, most of the export increase from central Asian countries to Russia consists of manufactured goods (such as telephones and computers), machinery and transport equipment – some of which are critical for Russia’s war efforts. Russia has evidently made a major pivot towards Asia, Livny concluded.

This narrative was seconded by Michael Koch, Director at the Swedish National Board of Trade, who pointed to data indicating that several European countries have increased their trade with Russia’s neighboring countries in the wake of the decreased direct exports to Russia. It should be noted, though, that data presented by Borchgrevink showed that the increase in trade from neighboring countries to Russia was substantially smaller than the drop in direct trade with Russia from Europe. This suggests that sanctions still have a substantial impact, albeit smaller than its potential.

According to Koch, a key question is how to make companies more responsible for their business? This was a key theme in the discussion that followed. Offering a Swedish government perspective, Håkan Jevrell emphasized the upcoming adoption of a twelfth sanctions package in the EU, and the importance of previous adopted sanctions’ packages. Jevrell also continued by highlighting the urgency of deferring sanctions circumvention – including analyzing the effect of current sanctions. In the subsequent panel Jevrell, alongside Adrian Sadikovic, Anders Leissner, and Nataliia Shapoval keyed in on sanctions circumvention. The panel discussion brought up the challenges associated with typically complicated sanctions legislation and company ownership structures, urging for more streamlined regulation. Another aspect discussed related to the importance of enforcement of sanctions regulation and the fact that we are yet to see any rulings in relation to sanctions jurisdiction. The panelists agreed that the latter is crucial to deter sanctions violations and to legitimize sanctions and reduce Russian government revenues. Although sanctions have not yet worked as well as hoped for, they still have a bite, (for instance, oil sanctions have decreased Russian oil revenues by 30 percent).

Reducing Russia’s Government Revenues

As was emphasized throughout the conference, fossil fuel export revenues form the backbone of the Russian economy, ultimately allowing for the continuation of the war. Accounting for 40 percent of the federal budget, Russian fossil fuels are currently mainly exported to China and India. However, as presented by Petras Katinas, the EU has since the invasion on the 24th of February, paid 182 billion EUR to Russia for oil and gas imports despite the sanctions. In his presentation, Katinas also highlighted the fact that Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) imports for EU have in fact increased since the invasion – due to sanctions not being in place. The EU/G7 imposed price cap on Russian oil at $60 per barrel was initially effective in reducing Russian export revenues, but its effectiveness has over time being eroded through the emergence of a Russia controlled shadow fleet of tankers and sales documentation fraud. In order to further reduce the Russian government’s income from fossil fuels, Katinas concluded that the whitewashing of Russian oil (i.e., third countries import crude oil, refine it and sell it to sanctioning countries) must be halted, and the price cap on Russian oil needs to be lowered from the current $60 to $30 per barrel.

In his research presentation, Daniel Spiro also focused on oil sanctions targeted towards Russia – what he referred to as the “Energy-economic warfare”. According to Spiro, the sanctions regime should aim at minimizing Russia’s revenues, while at the same time minimizing sanctioning countries’ own costs, keeping in mind that the enemy (i.e. Russia) will act in the exact same way. The sanctions on Russian oil pushes Russia to sell oil to China and India and the effects from this are two-fold: firstly, selling to China and India rather than to the EU implies longer shipping routes and secondly, China and India both get a stronger bargaining position for the price they pay for the Russian oil. As such, the profit margins for Russia have decreased due to the price cap and the longer routes, while India and China are winners – buying at low prices. Considering the potential countermoves, Spiro – much like Katinas – emphasized the need to take control of the tanker market, including insurance, sales and repairs. While the oil price cap has proven potential to be an effective sanction, it has to be coupled with an embargo on LNG and preferrable halted access for Russian ships into European ports – potentially shutting down the Danish strait – Spiro concluded.

Chloé Le Coq presented work on Russian nuclear energy, another energy market where Russia is a dominant player. Russia is currently supplying 12 percent of the United States’ uranium, and accounting for as much as 70 percent on the European market. On top of this, several European countries have Russian-built reactors. While the nuclear-related revenues for Russia today are quite small, the associated political and economic influence is much more prominent. The Russian nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, is building reactors in several countries, locking in technology and offering loans (e.g., Bangladesh has a 20-year commitment in which Rosatom lends 70 percent of the production cost). In this way Russia exerts political influence on the rest of the world. Le Coq argued that energy sanctions should not only be about reducing today’s revenues but also about reducing Russian political and economic influence in the long run.

The notion of choke points for Russian vessels, for instance in the Danish strait, was discussed also in the following panel comprising of Yuliia Pavytska, Iikka Korhonen, Aage Borchgrevink, and Lars Schmidt. The panelists largely agreed that while choke points are potentially a good idea, the focus should be on ensuring that existing sanctions are enforced – noting that sanctions don’t work overnight and the need to avoid sanctions fatigue. Further, the panel discussed the fact that although fossil fuels account for a large chunk of federal revenues, a substantial part of the Russian budget come from profit taxes as well as windfall taxes on select companies, and that Russian state-owned companies should in some form be targeted by sanctions in the future. In line with the previous discussion, the panelists also emphasized the importance of getting banks and companies to cooperate when it comes to sanctions and stay out of the Russian market. Aage Borchgrevink highlighted that for companies to adhere to sanctions legislation they could potentially be criminally charged if they are found violating the sanctions, as it can accrue to human rights violations. For instance, if companies’ parts are used for war crimes, these companies may also be part of such war crimes. As such, sanctions can be regarded as a human rights instrument and companies committing sanctions violations can be prosecuted under criminal law.

Frozen Assets and Disinformation

The topic of Russian influence was discussed also in the conference’s last panel, composed of Anders Ahnlid, Kata Fredheim, Torbjörn Becker, Martin Kragh, and Andrii Plakhotniuk. The panelists discussed Russia’s strong presence on social media platforms and how Russia is posting propaganda at a speed unmet by legislators and left unchecked by tech companies. The strategic narrative televised by Russia claims that Ukraine is not a democracy, and that corruption is rampant – despite the major anti-corruption reforms undertaken since 2014. If the facts are not set straight, the propaganda risks undermining popular support for Ukraine, playing into the hands of Russia. Further, the panelists also discussed the aspect of frozen assets and how the these can be used for rebuilding Ukraine. Thinking long-term, the aim is to modify international law, allowing for confiscation, as there are currently about 200 billion EUR in Russian state-owned assets and about 20 billion EUR worth of private-owned assets, currently frozen.

The panel discussion resonated also in the presentation by Vladyslav Vlasiuk who gave an account of the Ukrainian government’s perspective of the situation. Vlasiuk, much like other speakers, pointed out sanctions as one of the main avenues to stop Russia’s continued war, while also emphasizing the need for research to ensure the implications from sanctions are analyzed and subsequently presented to the public and policy makers alike. Understanding the effects of the sanctions on both Russia’s and the sanctioning countries’ economies is crucial to ensure sustained support for the sanction’s regime, Vlasiuk emphasized.

Joining on video-link from Kyiv, Tymofiy Mylovanov, rounded off the conference by again emphasizing the need for continued pressure on Russia in forms of sanctions and sanctions compliance. According to Mylovanov, the Russian narrative off Ukraine struggling must be countered as the truth is rather that Ukraine is holding up with well-trained troops and high morale. However, Mylovanov continued, future funding of Ukraine’s efforts against Russia must be ensured – reminding the audience how Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine, but to Europe and the world.

Concluding Remarks

The Russian attack on Ukraine is military and deadly, but the wider attack on the liberal world order, through cyber-attacks, migration flows, propaganda, and disinformation, must also be combatted. As discussed throughout the conference, sanctions have the potential for success, but it hinges on the beliefs and the compliance of citizens, companies, and governments around the world. To have sanctions deliver on their long-term potential it is key to include not only more countries but also the banking sector, and to instill a principled behavior among companies – having them refrain from trading with Russia. Varying degrees of enforcement undermine sanctions compliant countries and companies, ultimately making sanctions less effective. Thus, prosecuting those who breach or purposedly evade sanctions should be a top priority, as well as imposing control over the global tanker market, to regain the initial bite of the oil price cap. Lastly, it is crucial that the global community does not forget about Ukraine in the presence of other conflicts and competing agendas. And to ensure success for Ukraine we need to restrain the Russian war effort through stronger enforcement of sanctions, and by winning the information war.

List of Participants

Anders Ahnlid, Director General at the National Board of Trade
Aage Borchgrevink, Senior Advisor at The Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Torbjörn Becker, Director at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics
Chloé Le Coq, Professor of Economics, University of Paris-Panthéon-Assas, Economics and Law Research Center (CRED)
Benjamin Hilgenstock, Senior Economist at Kyiv School of Economics Institute
Håkan Jevrell, State Secretary to the Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade
Michael Koch, Director at Swedish National Board of Trade
Iikka Korhonen, Head of the Bank of Finland Institute for Emerging Economies (BOFIT)
Martin Kragh, Deputy Centre Director at Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS)
Eric Livny, Lead Regional Economist for Central Asia at European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)
Anders Leissner, Lawyer and Expert on sanctions at Advokatfirman Vinge
Tymofiy Mylovanov, President of the Kyiv School of Economics
Vladyslav Vlasiuk, Sanctions Advisor to the Office of the President of Ukraine
Nataliia Shapoval, Chairman of the Kyiv School of Economics Institute
Yuliia Pavytska, Manager of the Sanctions Programme at KSE Institute
Andrii Plakhotniuk, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to the Kingdom of Sweden
Daniel Spiro, Associate Professor, Uppsala University
Adrian Sadikovic, Journalist at Dagens Nyheter
Kata Fredheim, Executive Vice President of Partnership and Strategy and Associate Professor at SSE Riga
Lars Schmidt, Director and Sanctions Coordinator at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Democratic Backsliding and Electoral Autocracies: Research Shared at the 2023 FROMDEE Conference

20231203 Democratic Backsliding Image 021

On October 13th, 2023, the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Forum for Research on Media and Democracy in Eastern Europe (FROMDEE) hosted an academic conference on “Democratic Backsliding and Electoral Autocracies”. This brief provides a short summary of the keynote lecture and research presentations featured at the conference.

The most recent report by the V-Dem Institute concludes that “72 percent of the world’s population […] live in autocracies by 2022” and “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels” (V-Dem Institute, 2023). In Europe, these declines have manifested in the previous Polish government undermining judicial independence, in tightened political repression in Belarus, and most prominently in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the rise of electoral autocracies and democratic backsliding are not confined to Europe – their strategies of propaganda, corruption, electoral manipulation, as well as attacks on judicial and media independence are a global phenomenon. The October 13th FROMDEE Conference gathered researchers from economics, law and political science to bring insight into why and where reversals are taking place, and what measures are needed to reverse the negative trend. This policy brief provides an overview of the research shared at the conference.

Populism and Autocracy – the Case of Russia

In the keynote lecture, Arturas Rozenas (New York University) focused on the roots of populism, challenging the common view of illiberal democracies as a mix between democracies and dictatorships. Rather, dictatorships evolve into populist dictatorships that then take one of two paths: either the path to democracy, or the path towards electoral autocracy, illiberal democracy, or totalitarianism. In this framework, populist dictatorships have historically made use of populist elements we recognize from modern times, i.e., democratic-seeming institutions misused for the ruler’s purposes.

In a populist dictatorship, Rozenas continued, there is a monopoly of power. Institutions such as elections and parliamentary representation, serve not to allocate power but to legitimise it. The transition from passive to active dictatorships coincided with a move away from the common notion of a king or similar leader deriving rightful power from God to rule the masses, to a reality built on the idea that the ruler’s legitimacy stems from the masses. This historic transformation should however not be interpreted as a transition to democracy. In fact, Rozenas showed that for most of recent history, the majority of elections and expansions of suffrage took place in dictatorships rather than in democracies. These seemingly populist institutions serve not only to legitimise governments, but also to coopt the population in a public display of the ruler’s strength. Rozenas argued, that in an active populist dictatorship, the ruler creates a setting which suppresses dissent and expectations of dissent, through institutionalised expressions of support (in the form of political participation, elections, large rallies etc.).

Turning to the Russian setting, the first thing to notice is the deep tradition of autocracy – from tsarism to Stalinism. In Russia, the words “society” and “the people” briefly blossomed during past revolutions or uprisings but have largely been absent in the Russian language and are once again on the decline under the rule of Putin. Further, the Russian population has time and again been exploited by its rulers during succession crises for displays of power and dominance. Examples of this are the mandatory elections held under Stalin two weeks after the invasion of the Baltic States in 1939 and more recently under Putin in the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine in 2021. Such populist autocratic strategies are nothing new in Russia, concluded Rozenas – rather they derive from the internal logic of dictatorship that has played out throughout Russian history.

Continuing the notion of the “absent” Russian society, Olha Zadorozhna (Kozminski University) began her presentation by explaining that protests are infrequent in Russia and have surprisingly few attendees given the country’s large population. While there were mass protests in the run-up to the collapse of communism in the 1980’s and protests took place against corruption in 2017-2018, and in relation to the arrest of Alexey Navalny in 2021, protests in Russia are typically not motivated by an overarching ideology or broader political questions. Rallies in favor of authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism are a more common occurrence. Moreover, there are few indications that the invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and subsequent economic downturn have negatively affected the Russian population’s support for the regime. Still, literature has shown that war-related deaths can mobilize opposition against war participation (e.g., the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War). Considering this, Zadorozhna evaluates whether the deaths of Russian soldiers provoke a reaction among the Russian population. By combining social media data on fallen soldiers with protest activity for the first four months of the Russian invasion in 2022, the study find that casualties lead to an increase in protest activity, indicating that deaths can in fact mobilize public opposition in Russia.

Other populist strategies to ensure support for Putin in Russia relate to political participation and the judiciary. Nicholas James (University of Oxford) analysed electoral rule changes in the Russian Duma – from mixed member majoritarianism to proportional representation (PR) – by measuring their effect on floor participation. Applying a difference-in-differences framework, James found that deputies experiencing a change from PR included less words in their speeches following the switch (about 15-20 percent of an average speech). This effect should be understood in the political context of the ruling party’s (United Russia) increased influence during this time period (2010s). In fact, James concluded, the results point in the direction of the regime tampering with the Duma in an impromptu and reactionary manner with the overall goal of obtaining closer control and the appearance of support for the regime.

Yulia Khalikova’s (University of Hamburg) presentation gave further insight into how ostensibly democratic institutions can be exploited to make an authoritarian regime appear legitimate. In her work, Khalikova considers judicial references to international law that may be employed strategically, without necessarily adhering to the spirit or content of the law. Looking specifically at international law citations in 601 judgements made in the Russian Constitutional Court (RCC) between 2000 and 2021, Khalikova find evidence that the RCC has increasingly cited international courts when making judgements on topics related to politics and physical rights, indicating that state policy influences citation patterns. The change in citation patterns also points to the RCC currently using international law to support the regime and uphold its legitimacy, meaning that international law – adopted with the ambition of enhancing democratic values and ensuring human rights – is misused for undemocratic and repressive purposes.

Censorship and Propaganda

Information control is an important feature of autocratic regimes. Philine Widmer (ETH Zurich) considers the Chinese setting – where the regime controls the amount of foreign information available on the internet via a countrywide firewall. Research has shown that autocracies make use of censorship strategies to control their citizens, but these are associated with high reputational costs and can be overcome by tech-savvy citizens. Using a machine learning algorithm, Widmer first predicts a newspaper article’s alignment with the Chinese regime before comparing the placement of more/less aligned articles on news websites. Her results show that front-page news stories in Chinese newspapers are more aligned with the regime’s stance than other content. Front-page placement in turn matters for information uptake. Widmer ended the presentation by comparing the additional cost of finding less aligned articles to the technological costs required to access outside media (e.g. VPNs). For an autocracy to achieve its information control objectives, independent news may just need to be relatively harder to access. It does not need to make it impossible to access for all citizens.

Censorship is typically accompanied by, and complementary with, propaganda. Restricting other narratives allows autocratic regimes to spread their own. While propaganda is a common feature within autocracies, Jaakko Meriläinen’s (Stockholm School of Economics) presentation evaluated the effect of autocratic propaganda in a democratic setting.

Meriläinen’s study focuses on a rogue experiment in which some Finnish children in the 1970’s were taught history and social sciences using material from the Soviet Union – material which was in essence Soviet propaganda. By exploiting geographical and cohort variation, Meriläinen use a difference-in-differences approach to compare the 213 exposed children to children taught the regular Finnish curriculum. The long-term outcomes show that exposed children had lower incomes in adulthood, worked fewer months per year and were engaged in more left-leaning and publicly beneficial occupations (such as, nurses and firefighters).

Information and Accountability

The use of technological innovations to access otherwise restricted information was central to Arieda Muço’s (Central European University) presentation. She studies the spread of the Xerox photocopying machine in communist Hungary in the 1980’s – a setting characterised by limited freedom of speech and restrictions on the media. She reported that areas with early placement of Xerox machines are found to exhibit higher shares of pro-democratic voting. Muço ascribes these outcomes to the fact that the machines allowed for the spread of information and eased coordination of the opposition, suggesting that new technologies and information can act as key facilitators in the fall of autocratic regimes.

Providing citizens with information was also a key feature in Enrique Seira Bejarano’s (Michigan State University) presentation. He began by discussing two potentially related trends: in Latin America recent years have seen (i) increased levels of corruption and (ii) increased dissatisfaction with democracy among citizens. The number of corruption-related news articles have increased threefold in Spanish and doubled in English and the share of people perceiving corruption to be the greatest challenge to their country has doubled in the last decade. The study uses two empirical strategies to identify the effect of corruption on democratic values. Firstly, Seira Bejarano described an observational study, in which data on major corruption scandals were combined with Latinobarometer data on support for democracy. The authors find that corruption scandals increase corruption perceptions while decreasing stated support for democracy. Secondly, Seira Bejarano reported the results of a randomized controlled trial in which some respondents were shown videos of a politician accepting bribes. This had a negative effect on preferences for democracy and on trust more broadly. Both studies show that revelations of corruptions decrease the support for democracy, suggesting a potential tradeoff between the public’s belief in democratic institutions and increased transparency which is important for accountability but can also expose corruption.

Right-wing Populism

Yet another threat to democracy is the rise of right-wing populism – currently a reality in many well-established democracies across Europe. In Germany, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enjoys around 21 percent of voters’ support according to recent polls. To understand their rise in popularity, Navid Sabet (Goethe University Frankfurt) builds on previous literature on cultural conflict as a driver for right-wing party support. The paper he presented examines the role of violent conflict in the form of terrorist acts. It evaluates whether acts of terror can alter the political landscape and shift support to the far-right. To avoid selection problems, the authors compare successful terror attacks to attacks that failed. Sabet reported that successful small-scale attacks (predominantly targeting migrants) increase AfD’s vote share by about 6 percentage points in state elections (in the time period 2013-2021). The acts of terror were found to increase voter turnout, by mobilizing otherwise idle voters, but also by gaining votes at the cost of other parties. Exploring the mechanisms behind these results, the authors study the language used by political parties and the way successful attacks were covered in the media. Relative to coverage of unsuccessful attacks, media coverage used a more negative tone, more words related to Islam and terror and fewer words related to right-wing populism. This suggests that media plays an important role in shaping the public’s response to acts of terror and that far right parties are able to exploit this dynamic.

Concluding Remarks

The 2023 FROMDEE Conference brought together academics from different fields to shed light on some of the main challenges to democracy today. In part, the research presented supported the prevailing narrative that democracies are backsliding in many parts of the world. However, by analysing how autocracies and populist leaders operate, the presenters also highlighted the vulnerability of dictatorships.

Arturas Rozenas cited the example of a rally in Bucharest in 1989, which was organised to display support for Ceauşescu’s regime and descended into an anti-government protest. Dictatorships can benefit by coopting the populist elements of democracy but, in doing so, they risk creating a vehicle for genuine democratic expression.

The audience learned about autocracies’ efforts to control the flow of information but also about citizens’ ability to circumvent restrictions whether in 1980s Hungary or present-day China. Several presentations focused on the extent of autocratic control in Russia but even in this setting, the death of soldiers in Ukraine motivates citizens to participate in protests.

Recent trends suggest that democratic institutions should not be taken for granted in any country. Societies can become more resilient to the threat of democratic backsliding, in part by better understanding how both democracies and autocracies operate and what makes them vulnerable. Researchers around the world are using innovative methods to expand our knowledge in this area, as reflected in the presentations at the 2023 FROMDEE Conference.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

The Nordic Model of Prostitution Legislation: Health, Violence and Spillover Effects

20190422 The Nordic Model of Prostitution Image 01

An emerging literature is studying, with the help of new types of data and clever identification strategies, the effects of different legislative measures regulating the market for sexual services. The primary target of such measures are arguably the participants in the market, prostitutes and their clients, and law and order concerns in their immediate vicinity. In a new research project, we mean to shift the spotlight on potential broader spillovers from these policies, both to other outcomes and other countries. In their presence, we cannot understand the full impact of a law change if we limit our analysis to the prostitution market in that country alone. We focus on a particular model of prostitution legislation, first adopted in Sweden in 1999 and known since as the Nordic model.

The Nordic model

The debate on prostitution legislation shares clear similarities with the standard arguments put forward for or against alcohol prohibition or drug liberalization. The criminalization of an activity is most likely shrinking the corresponding market, because it increases the cost of participation. It also functions as a signal of what a society deems acceptable or not, and coordinates behavior to potentially change social norms. At the same time, however, it pushes the remaining market into the darkness, where criminal activity potentially increases. In the specific case of the prostitution market, what is particularly feared is an increased risk of violence and general worsening of conditions for the potentially fewer sex workers.

When, in 1999, Sweden enacted the first asymmetric criminalization of prostitution, whereby buyers but not sellers of sexual services are punished, a third way between criminalization and legalization seemed to appear. This legislation would still give a clear signal on societal values, but at the same time protect the, in large part female and in large part exploited, sex workers. The model proved very successful in deterring street prostitution, and, under the catchy name of the “Nordic model”, has subsequently been adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, and France. It is currently under consideration in further countries as well.

This is where most reports and policy evaluations stop. In a new project at SITE, involving an international research cooperation, we propose to investigate the impacts of this legislation beyond the participants in the prostitution market. Specifically, we encompass other outcomes such as gender-based violence, health outcomes and online behavior, both within Sweden and other countries that implemented the reform, but also, most importantly, across their borders. The idea is that law changes in one country may also affect the demand and supply of prostitution in other countries, especially but not exclusively those bordering the country that enacts the law change. Two possible channels for such cross-border effects are sex tourism and human trafficking.

This brief summarizes the preliminary evidence we collected so far.


The focus on the role of policies is a recent but rapidly growing addition to the economic literature on prostitution. The risk of violence, both for the participants and within the neighboring geographic areas, is a natural area of concern for policy in relation to the sex market, and to criminal activities in general. To improve on cross-country comparisons and draw causal links from policies to outcomes, the most robust contributions in this area focus on natural experiments. Cunningham and Shah (2018) study an unintentional, and therefore unexpected and temporary, decriminalization of indoor prostitution in Rhode Island, and find that reported rape offences fall by 30%. Cunningham and coauthors (2019) also look at the geographic expansion of the erotic services section of Craigslist, a popular advertisements website, before online solicitation was banned in 2018. The possibility to use online platforms for their work, by allowing prostitutes to keep mostly indoors, and screen their potential clients to a larger extent, appears to have been very beneficial: the study finds lower female homicide rates by 10-17% when and where the service was available. Ciacci and Sviatschi (2018) find that the opening in a neighborhood of indoor prostitution establishments decreases sex crime by 7-13%, with no effect on other types of crime, arguing that the reduction is mostly driven by potential sex offenders resorting to the establishments, instead, to satisfy their needs. What is common to these studies is the finding that allowing the sex market to exist in some form is beneficial for outsiders, while indoor prostitution is safer for the sex workers themselves.

Preliminary findings from our project (Berlin et al., 2019 a) are consistent with this. We base our strategy on a comparison, within Sweden, between counties that are above or below average in terms of representation of women among police force and elected officials (we refer to them as treated and control counties, respectively). Both these indicators have been found in previous studies to drive greater reporting and lower incidence of crimes against women (Iyer et al., 2012; Miller and Segal, 2018). Looking at population-wide rates of violence against women in Sweden, we observe an increase in assaults committed by acquaintances indoors by about 10% and an increase in rapes indoors by more than 20% in treated as compared to control counties. Since the reform is argued to have eliminated street prostitution, and pushed the remaining sex trade indoors, violence against prostitutes will be counted in the indoor assaults statistic. However, in treated counties, where we observe the increase in violent crimes against women, we at the same time find fewer convictions for buying sex. We argue therefore that the increase in assaults we observe is not likely in the context of the sex market, but rather indicates increased violence against non-prostitutes from frustrated former customers, in other words a negative externality of deterring prostitution. In order to distinguish whether this increase is only in reported or actually committed crimes, we look at hospitalizations of women for injuries that are related to sexual interactions. If we think that seeking hospital care is less sensitive than reporting a violent man to the police, the series of hospitalizations should be closer to the true violence than the convictions. Although numbers are small and differences not significant, hospitalizations spike up in treated counties directly after the reform, as Figure 1 shows. All in all, our preliminary evidence from Sweden suggests that intimate partner violence and violence on women in general might have increased as a consequence of the “Nordic model”.

Figure 1. Hospitalizations of women

Source: Hospitalizations of women for injuries related to sex, from Berlin et al. (2019 a).

Other outcomes

Besides violence, health outcomes are also a policy relevant objective with the regulation of prostitution. Indicators such as the spread of sexually transmitted infections serve the double purpose of giving a rough indication of the changes in the size of the sexual market while at the same time enabling inference on the work environment and general living conditions for prostitutes. In a companion paper, which is underway, we examine these statistics for Sweden and Norway, in terms of within country changes but also with a mind to capture potential cross-border spillovers between the two countries.

Cross-border spillovers

In another working paper (Berlin et al., 2019 b) we study the reform enacted in France on April 13th, 2016, which removed the punishment for solicitation of prostitution (previously set to two months imprisonment plus a fine) and introduced instead a range of fines for the purchasing of sexual services, thereby, pushing the punishment to the side of the buyer. In order to study the cross-border effect of this change, we focus on the German Bundesländer bordering France: Baden-Württemberg, Saarland and Rheinland-Pfalz. The national law in Germany generally allows prostitution, but gives federal states the right to regulate it on a more detailed level. This generates variation at the level of the Gemeinde, the administrative division corresponding roughly to a municipality. The idea behind our analysis is to compare municipalities where prostitution is at least in part allowed with municipalities where it is banned (we refer to them as treated and control municipalities, respectively). Our preliminary results show that foreign tourism to cities where prostitution is at least partly legal increased after the reform more than to those completely overlapping with a Sperrbezirk, i.e. an area in which prostitution is banned. However, so does domestic tourism. This might be seen as a threat to our interpretation, since we can’t connect this increase directly to the French reform, unless we can show that there is a dynamic adjustment of the supply of sexual services, which also attracts domestic flows. We can’t isolate tourism from France in this data, so we go a step further by looking at online behavior.

Google searches

A key contribution of this project is to gather new data that haven’t been analyzed to date in the existing literature. In particular, we collected detailed data on Google searches originating in France using as keywords different German cities. The idea is to capture potential deviations of search trends over time driven by prostitute customers who after the legislative change find it more attractive to look for sexual services across the German border. Preliminary findings show that after the policy change there is a larger increase in search activity for cities closer to the French border relative to cities further away. While searches are generally downward trending over time, the trend is slowed after the French reform, and this effect is stronger the closer a city is to the border, although intermittently significant. Figure 2 reports the differential increase in searches (with 95% confidence intervals) as related to the distance from the border. The negative relationship between size of the impact and distance to the border is consistent when controlling for city and time fixed effects. However, further analysis is needed in order to validate the results and control for confounding factors.

Figure 2. Google searches for German cities before and after the French reform

Source: Google Search data on searches originating in France for cities closer to VS farther from the German border than the indicated distance (in km).

We are currently repeating the same exercise at the French borders with Belgium and Spain, with searches originating in Norway around the time of the Norwegian reform (2009), and at the US-Canada border around the time of the Canadian reform (2014).


When adopting a version of the Nordic model in 2014, the Canadian Department of Justice stated that the “overall objectives [of the reform] are to:

  • Protect those who sell their own sexual services;
  • Protect communities, and especially children, from the harms caused by prostitution; and
  • Reduce the demand for prostitution and its incidence.”

Research seems to show that restrictions on the sexual services market, rather than the sex trade itself, have substantial negative impacts on communities and sex workers. Nevertheless, it is understandable that legislators in many countries, sharing similar concerns and expectations as expressed by the Canadian DoJ, find it unattractive to legalize prostitution. What our project points to, then, is that when considering various forms of criminalization, it is crucial to understand how best to pursue each of these objectives. Taking into account side-effects, or spillovers, such as the ones we highlight above, might reveal the need for complementary policies, in order to avoid unexpected and counterproductive consequences.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.