The annual report -- which includes events from 1 December 2003 through 30 November 2004 -- showed a general rise in liberties worldwide.
But Russia, by contrast, has been the site of flawed parliamentary and presidential elections and political reforms aimed at silencing opposition voices. Such moves, Freedom House says, mark a "dangerous and disturbing" drift toward authoritarianism in Russia.
"Overall, one can say that Russia -- of the former Soviet states -- was the greatest underachiever in 2004," said John Kubiniec, Freedom House's regional director for Central and Eastern Europe. "The primary issues were the recentralization of local and regional government; continuing pressures on the media; pressures on civil society organizations, including unwarranted tax audits and other forms of pressure; overall efforts to control civil society; pressures on human rights groups; and of course the continuing questions about the electoral process, primarily the presidential elections in early 2004, which were neither free nor fair."
Freedom House has published its "Freedom in the World" report since 1978. Russia's downgrade this year marks a low point not seen since 1989, when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
Other former Soviet countries marked setbacks, as well, though not sufficiently dramatic to change their overall status.
Belarus -- which already ranks as the least free country in Europe -- saw a decline in political rights because of deepening harassment of opposition forces.
Armenia, whose 2003 presidential elections did not meet international standards of fairness, saw further problems this year, with a government judged largely unresponsive and violent crackdowns on peaceful civic protests.
Romania also regressed in the Freedom House report, due to flaws in the first round of its presidential and parliamentary elections.
The territory of Kosovo also saw a significant downgrade, due to a rise in ethnic violence earlier this year, which in turn led to the widespread nonparticipation of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo's parliamentary elections in October.
Some countries, however, witnessed positive developments.
Chief among them was Ukraine, whose "people power" movement of the past several months saw a surge in civic activism and press freedoms throughout the presidential campaign and two rounds of voting marred by fraud. Kubiniec said other factors contributed to the trend.
"I would point to the responsible and accountable behavior of certain state institutions -- the very brave civic stance made by certain members of the Central Election Commission, [and] the Supreme Court upholding basic democratic standards," Kubiniec said. "I would point to all these issues, including the great civic mobilization which has come as a response to the irregularities in the first couple rounds of the elections."
Georgia, too, saw its standing improve, entering Freedom House's ranks of "electoral democracies." The election of Mikheil Saakashvili as president in January was judged by international monitors to be free and fair.
Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina also saw modest improvements in political rights and civil liberties.
This year's survey recorded small gains in the Middle East. Most notably, more attention was paid to the issue of women's rights.
But Iran and Iraq -- both ranked "not free" -- saw no change in their ratings. Despite efforts to build a civic society in postwar Iraq, Freedom House noted that progress has been stalled by the brutal insurgency that continues unabated there.
All five of the Central Asian countries continue to be ranked as "not free," with two -- Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- rated among the most repressive countries in the world.
Margarita Assenova, a Freedom House project manager, called Turkmenistan one of the "worst of the worst."
"Turkmenistan is one of the few closed regimes in the world," Assenova said. "It's not just lack of political freedom and civil liberties. It's not just violations of human rights. This is a completely closed regime that doesn't allow the special rapporteurs of the United Nations to even come to the country. This is a country we can compare with Cuba in terms of being completely closed [from] the outside world."
Freedom House noted that globally, freedom and democracy have shown considerable resistance, despite a rise in international terrorism. But the group criticized states that it says use terrorism to justify personal and political freedoms -- and cited Russia and Uzbekistan in particular.
Assenova said that, in her opinion, Uzbekistan's low rating stems more from its political restrictions than from terror-related crackdowns.
"Uzbekistan did not change any laws. Uzbekistan did not use the terrorist attacks to crack down on political opponents," Assenova said. "There is a very big difference between what happened in 1999 after the bombings in Tashkent -- where 7,000 political and religious leaders ended up in prison and some of them are still in prison -- and what happened this year, in 2004, after the attacks in April-March and July. There were no mass arrests and -- this is very important to single out, to underline -- that Uzbekistan did not resort to cracking down on the population, as was expected."
The report noted a rise in the incidence of terrorist acts in the largely "free" countries of the Western world. But a majority of the people perpetrating the acts continue to come from countries that are "not free."
For this reason, the report concluded, it is more important than ever to push for reforms in regions like Central Asia, where the terrorist threat is likely to grow.
(The full Freedom House report can be found at http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2005.htm)