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East: Report Paints Mixed Picture Of Democracy In Postcommunist World

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A new report by the U.S. human rights group Freedom House paints a mixed picture on democratic progress across the postcommunist world.

Washington, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A new report on the postcommunist world says democracy and human rights are improving in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region but continue to deteriorate in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The U.S.-based Freedom House rights organization detailed its findings last week when it released its annual "Nations in Transit" report for 2002. The study, which measures democratic progress in postcommunist states, was compiled by experts and scholars from around the world.

Freedom House spokesman Michael Goldfarb told RFE/RL: "Throughout the region, most improvements documented this year were confined to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. With the exception of the Baltic region, the majority of the countries in the former Soviet Union continue to lag behind."

The report was particularly critical of Russia, calling long-term trends there "disturbing" and urging U.S. President George W. Bush to take up the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It accuses Putin of concentrating power around him and cites rampant corruption and an absence of truly free elections in Russia. It says Russian civil society remains marginalized and that the media are under constant threat.

The survey also sees "significant" democratization setbacks in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Modest declines are reported in Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Moldova, and Poland.

Both Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, are singled out for criticism. The report says that for most of 2002, Akaev "used direct and indirect pressure to silence" his opponents. And the report blames Nazarbaev for instituting a harsh clampdown on journalists who sought to investigate reports of official corruption.

Goldfarb said the increased U.S. presence in Central Asia that came with the war in Afghanistan in late 2001 has done little to improve human rights in the region. "Although many observers expected that an enhanced U.S. military presence and increased foreign aid would lead to positive domestic developments in the countries of Central Asia, little -- if anything -- has changed on the ground there. Indeed, the situation has deteriorated in many respects," he said.

The report says 2002 was a negative year across the Caucasus. It says Armenia is struggling with enormous socioeconomic problems, unresolved security issues, and what it calls a "deeply flawed political order." Other nations in the region received similar criticism.

"In Georgia, local elections were characterized by violence and voting irregularities. And independent journalists were often under attack. The 'Nations in Transit' report on Georgia details a highly unstable territorial administration, weak institutional foundations and anticorruption measures that have proven ineffective," Goldfarb said.

The report says only one country -- Bosnia and Herzegovina -- measured significant democratic progress in 2002.

Although the international community still plays a big role in Bosnia, the survey praises constitutional changes that ended discrimination against nondominant ethnic groups, the first Bosnian-organized national elections, and Bosnia's acceptance into the Council of Europe.

Cited for some democratization progress are Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Serbia and Montenegro.

However, the report says such progress often came from enhanced activity from civil society and nongovernmental organizations rather than from the governments themselves.

Because of slight improvements in parliamentary elections last year, Ukraine is also cited for positive steps on democratization. Jennifer Windsor, the study's editor, cautions that the overall trend in Ukraine over the last seven years is still negative and "quite worrisome."

But Windsor said that because Ukraine's noncommunist opposition notched its first significant victory in the parliamentary polls, there is now a glimmer of hope for Ukraine. "In our estimation, that gives you a sense that the democratic opposition in Ukraine is increasingly vibrant and strong and viable. And that is worth monitoring more closely in the coming years, particularly as we approach presidential elections in 2004," she said.

Windsor continued: "I think it's fairly obvious to anyone who tracks and observes Ukraine that civil society has grown increasingly vibrant and active and engaged, particularly engaged in political matters. And we took note of that."

On the rule of law, six countries show improvement. They are Albania, Bosnia, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. The report says the year was mostly forward-moving for Southeastern Europe, with some exceptions.

It says Macedonia showed positive signs of recovery after its domestic insurgency in 2001. And the report lauds progress in the media, civil society, and the fight against corruption in Serbia and Montenegro, though there was "stalemate and deadlock on the political front." As for Tirana, Goldfarb said, "Albania made the fight against corruption a top priority in 2002, and outlined a detailed plan for pursuing reforms in areas such as public administration, public financing, and overall transparency in government."

Finally, regression on the rule of law is seen in Georgia, Moldova, and Croatia. In particular, the report chastises Zagreb for failing to reform its judiciary and prosecute war crimes as required by law.