Previous research has shown that sanctions have a negative impact on the level of democracy in targeted authoritarian countries. This runs counter to substantive comparative literature on democratization which finds that economic stress is connected with regime collapse and democratic liberalization. To solve this puzzle, we focus on the effects of “democratic sanctions” (those that explicitly aim to promote democracy) which have become the most common type of sanction issued against authoritarian states. We introduce a new data set of imposed sanctions in the period 1990–2010 that clearly separates sanctions according to the explicit goal of the sender. Our cross-sectional time-series analysis demonstrates that although sanctions as a whole do not generally increase the level of democracy, there is in fact a significant correlation between democratic sanctions and increased levels of democracy in targeted authoritarian countries. A fundamental mechanism leading to this outcome is the increased instability of authoritarian rule as democratic sanctions are significantly associated with a higher probability of regime and leadership change.