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Report Says Decline In Freedom Continues Across Former Soviet Union

A riot policeman chases a protester during an opposition rally denouncing the results of presidential elections in central Minsk on December 19.
A riot policeman chases a protester during an opposition rally denouncing the results of presidential elections in central Minsk on December 19.
By Nikola Krastev
There is only one region in the world where political rights and civil liberties have been in continuous decline since 2001 -- the wide swath of territory made up of countries of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states.

That's according to Arch Puddington and Christopher Walker, the principal authors of the latest "Freedom in The World" report compiled annually by the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House.

The authors say there is no general explanation for the region's downward trend. But Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, lists a handful of possible factors.

One is the legacy of the Soviet Union; the other is Russia's undemocratic influence; and the third is the economic power attained by regimes in gas- and oil-rich countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

"The former Soviet Union [excluding the Baltic states] over the past five years, over the past decade, basically has gone from one decline to another decline. And Russia has led the way," Puddington says. "But you have one of the most repressive regions in the world in Central Asia, where Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are right at the bottom of our Freedom Index. And Tajikistan also has very low scores, as does Azerbaijan."

'Disappointing Declines'

The two major negative developments in the former Soviet space, according to the report, is the disputed presidential election in Belarus in December, which was followed by a violent crackdown on protesters, and the overall decline in freedom in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
"Ukraine was the one country in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union that we had ranked as 'free' -- as a free country -- the only country in that region," he says. "And after last year’s developments, we now rank Ukraine as 'partly free.' And we can say that this is for a single country one of the most important and disappointing declines for 2010."

Walker, Freedom House’s director of studies, says the negative trends in Ukraine include curbs on press freedom, the intimidation of civil society, and greater government influence on the judiciary.

"Ironically, President [Viktor] Yanukovych's election victory last year was, in many ways, an unexpected democratic inheritance of the Orange Revolution," Walker says. "The areas that we saw improvements from the end of 2004 until [2010] were precisely the areas that have come under greatest stress during the last year. So this would be the election process, media openness, and civil society."

Members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, however, were quick to dispute the report’s findings.

“We in the Regions Party can only perplexed by this," said the party’s deputy chairman in parliament, Vadym Kolesnichenko, who spoke to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

"For seven months we’ve been talking about this absurd topic under the heading of “freedom of speech” and “censorship of the media” but no one has been able to show one single concrete example. So this classification can only perceived with amazement -- particularly when there are claims that we are enemies of the opposition. I don’t think any country has demonstrated a more loyal attitude towards the opposition, which does nothing and stops us from working,” Kolesnichenko said.

With Ukraine's slide to the "partly free" category, there are now no countries ranked "free" in the former Soviet Union, with the notable exception of the three Baltic states.

'Increased Brazenness'

But even in the Baltic states, Walker says, the picture is far from rosy, with Latvia deserving special attention. Controversy surrounds the ownership change in 2010 of "Diena," Latvia's main daily newspapers, which has raised serious concerns about the coverage of meaningful political events in the country. This media transparency issue negatively affects the overall democratic process in Latvia, according to the report.

Russia and Belarus were listed among the world's most powerful authoritarian regimes, along with Iran, China, and Venezuela. These countries, according to Freedom House, acted with "increased brazenness" in 2010.

In the former Soviet space, Walker says Russia, which was named "not free," continued to set the tone.

"[The] cases of [laywer] Sergei Magnitsky and [jailed oil tycoon] Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the end of the year in many ways exemplified the depths of the corruption not only of the judicial system in Russia but of the wider systemic challenges that the country faces," Walker says. "Because what you’ve seen in both of these cases is the intersection of interests that come together to prevent any sort of rule of law being exercised."

The media sector in Russia, according to Freedom House, has been unable to examine important issues in a meaningful and ongoing basis; the judiciary is subjected to heavy interference and is unable to operate in an independent manner; and political activities are strictly sanctioned and devised in a way that there is no meaningful accountability across institutions.

Despite the grim overall picture, Paddington and Walker say there were bright spots in 2010, notably in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Georgia.

"Kyrgyzstan showed some gains after all the commotion early in the year when [President Kurmanbek] Bakiev was forced out," Puddington says. "You’ve had a new constitution, and you’ve had elections that were pretty good, and you’ve had a new government that seems superior to the old Bakiev government."

Iran's Slide

Iran was identified as being on a downward trend and received the "not free" label. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' rising economic and political clout was singled out as a reason for Iran's slide, as was the "sentencing of the entire leadership of the Baha'i community to lengthy prison terms."

Across the globe, a total of 25 countries showed significant declines in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as "free" fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123.

Other significant developments included the downgrade of Mexico from "free" to "partly free" due to incidents related to ongoing drug wars and resulting violence and intimidation. Another negative development regarding freedom was China's vigorous campaign against the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo.

At the Washington release of the report, Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, pointed to its value in helping shape U.S. foreign policy:

"We start with a commitment to the fidelity of the truth and this report gives us a lot of information [and] a lot of detail about what's actually happening in the world. That's a basis for action," he said.

However, Posner added that attempting to force change from outside is difficult, and while foreign governments can seek to cultivate the conditions for a freer society, its source is ultimately the people of the country themselves.

with contributions from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 13, 2011 17:40
Nice synopsis of the report and look forward to reading the original. I was marginally surprised that you failed to suggest that we in the west may be partially responsible for aiding and abetting this loss of freedom. We are content to consume their resources, but then feel compelled to complain when the groans from the prisons in these countries disturb our peace.
In Response

by: ziga from: usa
January 13, 2011 21:53
Ray why are you playing the blame game? If we engage in any trade with countries that are human rights violators why should those countries be blamed for the decline of basic freedoms in those countries. Blame the governments that still cannot shake the communist monkey of their backs or choose not to.

By the way, do you still buy merchandise made in China?
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 14, 2011 13:57
Ziga, Hi. Not sure if I follow your logic. If I shop at a store that is run by the mafia (particularly because of the good bargains), am I not complicit in their criminality? Similarly, buying Russian oil or cheap Chinese goods (while it might be good for U.S. gas prices and consumer satisfaction at Walmart) helps to keep these ‘unfree’ governments in power. If we in the west want to preach about the ‘moral superiority’ of our way of life, then we ought to be willing to demonstrate our resolve by not helping to keep corrupt leaders in power via commerce. The report smells of hypocrisy. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, it takes considerable aplomb for these authors to be issuing freedom report cards.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
January 15, 2011 14:12
Ziga, Hi. Not sure if I follow your logic. If I shop at a store that is run by the mafia (particularly because of the good bargains), am I not complicit in their criminality? Similarly, buying Russian oil or cheap Chinese goods (while it might be good for U.S. gas prices and consumer satisfaction at Walmart) helps to keep these ‘unfree’ governments in power. If we in the west want to preach about the ‘moral superiority’ of our way of life, then we ought to be willing to demonstrate our resolve by not helping to keep corrupt leaders in power via commerce. This article smells of hypocrisy. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, it takes considerable aplomb for these authors to be issuing freedom report cards.

by: Marco Borg from: London, United Kingdom
January 14, 2011 13:34
This article only makes sense if you replace "countries decline in freedom" with the words "countries not part of the US sphere of influence" Many countries want to decline like China! As for the trial of one non Russian who snatched virtually all of Russia's oil, was bribing all politicians (called "funding democracy" in the US) and was preparing to sell it to an American company, well you wouldn't expect Radio Liberty to be happy about that.

And Posner's statement " We start with a commitment to the fidelity of the truth" when it has been revealed that the invasion of Iraq was based on a lie, is really a joke, isn't it?

It seems to me that the best thing we can do in the West is to stop the technology transfer, which only benefits a few individuals, to reduce the effort and expense spent on litigation, marketing, PRsing , "celebritization" and to concentrate on the new technologies.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
January 19, 2011 07:37
Not necessary Bist-Mark of Bismark, but rather Marking-Mark?
Marking for a "Borg"? Resistance to Russian Empire is lethal?
The largest pirat island of lobying pirats, USA, is not the "Bark",
Quite often their childishly stupid lies fall short of lying feudals,
Russians, but at least they helped many also, and they leaved
Free countries behind, but missunderstanding Imperial-tricks
That make never leaving Russian Locust of the Borg beleived
Be "Liberators", while breeding occupiers and trick USA to kick.


by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
January 14, 2011 16:28
It was pre-planed by Russia. USA, instigqated by Russian plants,
Doesn't help Freedom - if fall for Cold War CIA own "expansion",
Helping not CIS nations independence, but Russian crafting.
Freedom declines - Russia conquers neighbors as plans.


by: Ivo
January 14, 2011 19:39
Ahh, Nikola, I know RFE no longer covers EU Bulgaria but it will nice to write something about it too, especially it's press freedom ranking which is below some countries in Africa and Latin America.

by: Mark
January 17, 2011 06:12
Wow. What a load of lies.

Everybody i have an announcement to make..
This article is propaganda based and is mostly lies and opinions!

Because Ukraine shifted away from NATO-military imperialist alliance and US Influence they want to label Ukraine as below standart. Well the truth is my fellow Americans that Ukraine as setup after the western oriented Orange Revolution actually had more crime and more restrictions on freedom of press then now currently under Yanukovich. Same situation in current US-ruled Republic of Georgia. Saakashvilli's presidency is inframed with red tape, beurocracy and scare tactics.

My fellow Americans, dont you see that our foreign policy is in the wrong here? Dont you see how our government has become like a Police State lately? Many Americans who are middle class and above, just go on a video sharing website and see how the police are treating us its citizens, how physically they arrest us, over nothing, how they damage our rights with indecent searches. Your reading this now thinking its only some comment on the internet, and it is, but im just letting you know what our country is being forced to do is just like facism. We are a peaceful people who believe in liberty and democracy, yet the people in charge fill our heads with scare tactics of other nations and try to make us agree to their wars.
I am a Conservative Republican and just like in the Constitution i do not support war, i do not support alliances like NATO, Trade with all nations, allign with none. We are not the strongest country for no reason.

Love and Prosperity
-Mark
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
January 20, 2011 17:59
What a Russian "zamorochka", meaning brainwash by a boulder,
The weapon of choice of "Glorious" Russian - pogromer-stupifier!

"NATO... ...imperialism... ...US... - I am a Conservative Republican!"
"Ukraine shifted from... ...imperialist... ...US... - ...they label Ukraine!
US-ruled... ...Saakashvili scares - I am a Conservative Republican!"
"USA... ...Police State... ...scare... ...of (Russia?) - ...align with none.
Trade with (Russia)... ...their wars (Georgia defended itself, why?)
We are not strongest (Russia's war good , to expand and cleanse!)
Give Russia all Alexander Kartvelis brains, n their Treblinkas to fry!
Let Russia repopulate the World - I am a Conservative Republican!"

No Russian! No country in Eastern Europe and former USSR, ever,
Look for alliences with NATO, as you say it - they were nof "frayers"!

It is Russia's occupation and continued expansion and genocides
That makes them seek International help - leave Russia all sites
That you encroaching or occupying, pay for your crimes, repent!
Change your ways, it's you who sabotage even strategic trade,
For Varangio-Prussio-Babilonian breed in Euro-Asia lands!
Do you think the Nibiru coming with your devil - not God?

by: vic from: riga
January 17, 2011 15:35
To get rid of an authoritarian regime is not easy. I come from Mexico and the effects of a 7 decades official party regime are still on the air. All old structures of government still are there. Nothing has been removed. 2 presidents from another party are not enough to remove the hierarchic system and non written laws that regulate a dictatorship that lasted so long. There has been a change of regime, but no transition.

by: Popolam from: Belarus
January 18, 2011 13:19
Read not only european and opposition mass-media! It's THE partiality!

Behind the scenes of one conspiracy
http://www.belarus.by/en/press-center/news/behind-the-scenes-of-one-conspiracy_i_0000001970.html

by: Ethen from: UK
February 09, 2011 00:24
Hi
Ordinary people need jobs so that they can feed their children, schools so that they can educate their children, free national health care i.e. hospitals where they can be treated. What they don't want is empty words of US freedom. Nobody gives a monkey about US freedom house or their so called "freedom". US has proved in Iraq what kind of freedom and democracy it provides. People around the world have seen it there and guess what, they did not like it, so now they prefer dictator and dictatorship, but at least they know that they will have jobs, schools and hospitals. 90% of Iraqis now say they were much better off during Saddam rule then now. The number speaks volumes.
I wish Arch Paddington and Christopher Walker were in Azerbaijan during 90s.91,92,93,94,95,96,97 etc. when my own brother had to get up at 3am to stand in a queue to buy a loaf of bread to feed his children. I am very sure that they would not dare to speak about freedom and democracy after that.
Good day

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