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World: Freedom House Says 'New Divide' Formalized By EU Expansion

Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group, has issued its latest annual report as part of an ongoing, decade-old study on democratic transition in the former communist world. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the "Nations in Transit 2004" report.

Prague, 25 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom House, a U.S.-based group that monitors democracy around the world, says there is a widening "democracy gap" between the European Union and former communist states further east that continue to lag behind on reforms.

Freedom House released its report, "Nations in Transit 2004," in New York late yesterday. The report says the enlargement of the European Union on 1 May has formalized a "new divide" between the stable democracies of Central Europe and the Baltics on the one hand, and reform laggards further to the east on the other.
"Freedom House found that the non-Baltic post-Soviet states have regressed over the life of the study. Russia has registered the most significant decline in scores since last year, with Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine also showing significant downturns."

Kristie Evenson is the director of Freedom House's Budapest office. She explains that the latest report is part of an ongoing study that began nearly 10 years ago.

"The 'Nations in Transit' study is an attempt to be systematic at looking at the transition process in Central and Southeast Europe and in the Eurasia region. The study has a consistent set of methodology -- or a framework -- which looks at key areas of political development. Everything from media, to 'free and fair elections,' to differences in judicial reform, etc. The study is a good way to begin benchmarking progress, or [a lack of progress], in areas which have been determined to be important for overall reform and democratic transition," Evenson said.

The methodology Evenson refers to includes a "democracy score" based on a 1-7 scale. The democracy score is an average of subcategory ratings that Freedom House researchers have given each country after reviewing electoral processes, civil society, independent media, governance, corruption and legal frameworks.

A score of 1 represents the highest possible level of democratic development in a particular country, while a score of 7 represents the lowest score.

Evenson tells RFE/RL that the most recent report in the ongoing study reveals there have been regressions on democratic reforms in most former Soviet republics.

"Freedom House found that the non-Baltic post-Soviet states have regressed over the life of the study. Russia has registered the most significant decline in scores since last year, with Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine also showing significant downturns. Continued poor performance was documented throughout the Central Asian countries, which include some key U.S. allies. The editor of the 'Nations in Transit' report, Amanda Schnetzer, says that while there were some bright spots in the past year -- especially in Georgia -- the longer-term outlook for democracy in the non-Baltic former Soviet states remains bleak," Evenson said.

Although Russia's democracy score of 5.25 was a better ranking than Belarus (6.54), Azerbaijan (5.63), and all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia (ranging from 5.67 to 6.8), Evenson says Freedom House remains concerned about democratic regression in Russia.

"Worrisome setbacks in Russia continue. It's been noted [that there has been] a backslide in key areas of democratic practice. According to our 'Nations in Transit 2004' [report], President [Vladimir] Putin's policies have sought to centralize power, leaving little room for a vibrant civil society, independent media or political opposition. While Russia has emphasized the importance it places on maintaining strong ties to the West, it is headed in an increasingly authoritarian direction," Evenson said.

Armenia's score of 5.0 reflects what Freedom House calls a worsening of the ratings for electoral process and independent media. That score reflects serious irregularities that were noted by international observers at presidential and parliamentary elections last year.

By comparison, Georgia's overall score of 4.83 includes criticism of what Freedom House calls "fraudulent parliamentary elections" last year. But Evenson notes that the readiness of the Georgian people to mobilize peacefully and defend democratic values has resulted in an improved rating for civil society in Georgia.

"'Nations in Transit 2004' suggests some cause for concern regarding Armenia's democratic trajectory, particularly in the areas of free and fair elections, independent media, and human rights. Georgia's performance since the 'Rose Revolution' of last November suggests more promise in this regard," Evenson said.

Out of all the countries examined, Turkmenistan received the lowest overall score with 6.88. It was followed closely by Belarus with 6.54; Uzbekistan with 6.46; Kazakhstan with 6.25; Tajikistan with 5.71; and Kyrgyzstan with 5.67.

"Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor says that Western leaders must renew efforts to support political and economic reform in the postcommunist countries,” Evenson says. “At the same time, they must press slow-to-reform governments harder for tangible improvements in securing basic rights, promoting free and independent media, supporting the rule of law, and introducing effective and transparent governance."

In the final analysis, Freedom House says that the findings of this year's "Nations in Transit" study make clear that much remains to be done to extend the benefits of liberal democracy and free markets to the majority of postcommunist countries in Europe and Eurasia.

Here are the democracy scores published by the Freedom House for the non-Baltic former Soviet republics and some of the reasons given for the rating.

Belarus (6.54) -- "Belarus saw its ratings worsen in two 'Nations in Transit' categories: civil society and corruption. Local elections in March 2003 were conducted as a largely ceremonial event and predictably confirmed the political hegemony of the president. The government intensified its attacks on civil society and the independent press, and introduced a new 'state ideology' that had a particularly negative impact on academic freedoms. The government has failed to address the spread of corruption in the public sector, and the public's perception of corruption has increased considerably."

Russia (5.25) -- "Russia experienced the greatest overall decline of any country covered in 'Nations in Transit 2004,' with ratings worsening in five out of six categories covered by the study. The December 2003 State Duma elections capped a year in which the central government continued to tighten its grip over all aspects of Russian political life. The authorities used public resources and state-funded personnel to guarantee the overwhelming victory of the pro-Kremlin party in elections to the lower house. As Putin continues to crack down on all sources of opposition and to limit public space and debate, he will undermine the very democratic institutions and practices that could help the country deal with the enormous challenges it faces."

Moldova (4.88) -- "Democratic practice in Moldova continued to decline in the period covered by 'Nations in Transit 2004,' with the country receiving worsening ratings in the areas of electoral process, civil society, independent media, and governance. The ruling Communist Party achieved victory in flawed local and regional elections in 2003. Overall public support for the party actually slipped during the year, but the opposition remained fragmented and lacking in resources. Efforts to settle the Transdniestrian conflict continued, but Russia failed to comply with commitments to withdraw its armaments and munitions from the breakaway region. The persistence of weak governance, widespread corruption, and a fragile system of checks and balances also marked the year."

Ukraine (4.88) -- "Political life in 2003 was guided by the upcoming 2004 presidential election. Growing pressure against opposition parties and politically active NGOs, a persistent lack of transparency in policy making, and the presidential administration's efforts to pressure Parliament, the Cabinet, and the courts led to ratings declines in four out of six areas covered by 'Nations in Transit.' President Leonid Kuchma sought guarantees that he will not face criminal proceedings if he leaves office and pursued changes to the Constitution that would limit the authority of any future president and/or eliminate direct presidential elections."

Azerbaijan (5.63) -- "With events in 2003 once again highlighting the authoritarian nature of government in Azerbaijan and the extent of government control over civil society and the media, the country received declining ratings in four out of six categories covered by 'Nations in Transit.' President Heydar Aliyev's public collapse and subsequent health problems in 2003 ended his rule. Internal fissures in the government were muted as President Aliyev's son Ilham was appointed prime minister and became the ruling party's presidential candidate. Cracks within the opposition could not be similarly bridged. The opposition's claims of electoral fraud and its refusal to accept the official election results resulted in violent clashes with the authorities. Government efforts to exert greater control over civil society and the media were also evident."

Armenia (5.00) -- "Armenia's ratings for electoral process and independent media worsened in 'Nations in Transit 2004.' International observers noted serious irregularities in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003. The authorities also failed to ensure that the country's leading independent media organizations were able to resume broadcasting before the elections. Media freedom was further threatened by the inclusion of strict libel laws within Armenia's new criminal code. International organizations continued to highlight human rights abuses, but welcomed the abolition of the death penalty. Corruption and weak governance remained serious threats to Armenia's democratic development."

Georgia (4.83) -- "Fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2003, and the ensuing political crisis that culminated in President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation may constitute a turning point in the development of Georgian democracy. Although this change of power demonstrated the fragility of Georgia's democratic institutions, the events also showed the readiness of the people to mobilize in a peaceful and organized way to defend democratic values, thus leading to an improvement in the country's 'Nations in Transit' rating for civil society. This, as well as strong leadership by the opposition, the independent media, and civil society, factored heavily in the success of the 'Rose Revolution.' The incoming government was fast to reestablish public order, working within the limits of the Constitution. Nations in Transit ratings declines in the areas of governance and corruption suggest the extent of the challenges ahead."

Turkmenistan (6.88) -- "Fallout from the 2002 assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov continued in 2003. The country's economy weakened further, despite claims by the government to the contrary. Political oppression, already severe, further increased. And the country's international relations with neighbors and major powers in the region deteriorated. Overall, prospects for the country's future remained depressing. Turkmenistan's governance rating worsened in 'Nations in Transit 2004' owing to President Niyazov's continued efforts to make government officials and institutions operate only at his behest."

Uzbekistan (6.46) -- "In 2003, Uzbekistan remained one of the most authoritarian countries to emerge from the Soviet Union. Controls over the media continued to stifle freedom of expression. Administrative functioning remained excessively politicized. The absence of judicial independence continued to present serious impediments to commerce and liberty. And flagrant violations of human rights called into question Uzbek government commitments to international standards of promises of lasting reforms."

Kazakhstan (6.25) -- "Kazakhstan's ratings for independent media and corruption worsened in 'Nations in Transit 2004.' The elections for local councils in September enabled the regime to install its favored candidates, who will play a crucial role in securing a favorable outcome in the elections of the lower house in 2004. Although the government withdrew a draft law that ambiguously defined NGOs and restricted their ability to accept foreign funding, no noticeable improvement took place in the civil sector in 2003. The government refused to release the highly regarded journalist Sergei Duvanov from prison. The president and close family members continue to wield control over all key positions within the government and economic sector."

Tajikistan (5.71) -- "A June 2003 plebiscite paved the way for constitutional amendments that allow President Emomali Rakhmonov to stand for reelection for two additional seven-year terms. The flawed nature of the referendum resulted in a worsening of Tajikistan's 'Nations in Transit' rating for electoral process. Corruption and a lack of confidence in the market and the state continued to scare away the levels of international capital required for a full economic recovery, leading to a 'Nations in Transit' ratings decline for corruption. However, the government did make progress in securing the country from banditry, hostage taking, and terrorism, as reflected in a slight 'Nations in Transit' rating improvement for governance."

Kyrgyzstan (5.67) -- "In 2003, the opposition demanded President [Askar] Akayev's resignation over the 2002 killing of unarmed opposition demonstrators in the southern town of Kerben. Various opposition groups and parties united for the first time in criticism of Akayev's policies and widespread corruption among his cronies. After Parliament adopted a law granting Akayev lifetime immunity, the president confirmed he would step down in 2005. Attacks on the media continued, and the country's governance system remained ineffective and unaccountable."