The non-Baltic former Soviet Union now rivals the Middle East as one of the most politically and socially repressive regions in the world, according to the latest edition of "Freedom in the World," the annual report compiled by U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House.
The Freedom House report evaluates the civil rights and political liberties of 195 countries during 2012.
"We have found that in Eurasia, the performance -- especially on political rights indicators -- is the worst in the world," says Arch Puddington, Freedom House's vice president for research. "[It's] worse than in the Middle East, and this is something new."
According to the report, the "return of the iron fist in Russia" set the tone for the entire region.
It says Russian President Vladimir Putin "heaped contempt on the values of open societies" last year, restricting public demonstrations, limiting the work of civil society, and inhibiting free expression in print and online.
The report also highlights Moscow's decision to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country, but also criticizes the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama for "utterly fail[ing] to offer a credible response."
Abysmal Rights Records
Ukraine's ratings slumped for the second consecutive year, in part due to what many in the West see as the politically motivated imprisonment of opposition leaders.
Tajikistan's civil liberties rating declined in the wake of last summer's military operation in Gorno-Badakhshan Province, which was accompanied by extrajudicial killings and media repression.
Ukrainian opposition figure Yuriy Lutsenko, a forrmer interior minister, was found guilty of abuse of power and sentenced to four years in jail in 2012 in a trial denounced by supporters as politically motivated.
Freedom House said authorities in Kazakhstan last year ramped up their crackdown on opposition publications and social media in the wake of the deadly 2011 clashes in Zhanaozen.
Both Tajikistan and Kazakhstan fared only slightly better than Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, whose abysmal rights records kept them at the very bottom of Freedom House's list, alongside Syria, Somalia, and North Korea.
"The only bright spots [in the Eurasian region], really, are Georgia, which improved a bit; Armenia, which improved a bit; and Moldova," Puddington says. "Otherwise, Eurasia is one massive sea of not-free countries."
The region's worsening rights record was among several trends that made 2012 a "complicated" year for freedom, Puddington says.
For the seventh consecutive year, more countries (28) registered declines in measures of freedom than gains (16). At the same time, the number of countries classified as "free" increased slightly to 90.
The report said the Middle East/North Africa region was the site of some of the most dramatic advances in freedom last year, with Tunisia consolidating its Arab Spring gains and Libya progressing from "not free" to "partly free" status -- an improvement that Puddington says seemed "unthinkable" just a few years ago.
Yet Freedom House also said that gains there were "threatened by opposition from governments, security forces, ruling families, or religiously based political factions."
The Muslim Brotherhood's questionable commitment to democracy in Egypt and declines in freedom throughout the Persian Gulf were cited as cause for concern.
Other trends highlighted include an increase in Muslim-on-Muslim violence, which Freedom House said has reached "horrifying levels" in Pakistan and remains rife in Iraq.
The report also sounded the alarm on civil liberties at risk in Turkey, the crackdown on dissent in China, the continued repression of bloggers and minorities in Iran, and the "profound aversion" of rising global powers Brazil, India, and South Africa to condemn rights abuses in other developing countries.
Overall, 43 percent of the global population was found to live in "free" societies and 23 percent in "partly free" societies. Thirty-four percent of the world's people live in countries rated "not free."