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World: Survey Says Freedom Expanded In 2005, But Not Everywhere

A prisoner on trial in Uzbekistan (file photo) (RFE/RL) Freedom increased around the world this year, says Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, in its annual report set to be released tomorrow. The report calls 2005 one of the most successful years since Freedom House began measuring world freedom more than three decades ago. Freedom improved for Ukraine, among others. Uzbekistan, however, slipped to the lowest possible score in the survey, but remained a notch above the nonexistent state of freedom of its neighbor, Turkmenistan.

New York, 19 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Freedom House applies a complex methodology in its effort to assess the state of freedom around the world. Countries are fit into one of three categories: "free," "partly free," and "not free." There are also gradations within each category.

"We look at 25 different issues. They range from whether a country has free elections for president, free elections for parliament, whether all political parties have a level playing field, the degree of corruption, the degree of transparency, etc. So we look at these 25 questions that relate to political rights and civil liberties, and we rate each country as to how it performs on each of these questions. We add up the scores and then, within a certain range we declare a country as free, or partly free or not free," Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s director of research, told RFE/RL.

Nearly half the world's population live in the 89 countries that are considered free. Another 18 percent live in partly free countries, which number 58.

In this year’s report, Ukraine's rating improved from partly free to free. Ukraine becomes the first non-Baltic country of the former Soviet Union to attain a rating of free. However, according to one of the report’s authors, Kyiv barely made the cut.

Christopher Walker, Freedom House’s director of studies, told RFE/RL that Ukraine’s upgrade is a consequence of the so-called Orange Revolution that swept to power the reform-minded government of President Victor Yushchenko.

"In the case of Ukraine, we’ve seen a systematic improvement since the events of last year, chiefly in the areas of media where there’s been very significant opening in relation to the period predating the Orange Revolution in a way that hasn’t been seen in any neighboring country, which has been very important as their ratings have improved. In the Ukraine case, they have just passed the threshold, so they are toward the lower tier of the free countries," Walker said.

Ukraine’s case stands in contrast to Russia. One year ago, Freedom House lowered Russia’s freedom status from partly free to not free. This year’s report says that Kremlin moves to marginalize the opposition, expand control over the media, and undermine the independence of the judiciary were even more pronounced in 2005.

"When perestroika started, in some ways Russia had a more free environment," Puddington said. "I think the press was able to investigate more of the dark corners of society than the press is today. You had young people and intellectuals who were more inspired back then. On the other hand, there were no political freedoms. You didn’t have elections at all. The economy wasn’t at all free. And today, you’ve developed a middle class, you’ve developed entrepreneurs, you developed some free institutions."

But not all was bleak elsewhere in RFE/RL's broadcast region, including South and Central Asia and the Caucasus. Improvements were seen in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, which both moved up from not free to partly free. And Georgia retained its rank as partly free, but moved a notch higher within the category.

"In the case of Georgia, they continued against great odds to push forward with their reforms," Walker noted. "I think it’s fair to say that there is a fundamental commitment in the country to basic reforms. We observed, among other things, an increase in personal liberty, personal freedoms, and respect for civil rights in the country. There’s always room for improvement, I think; we’ll be looking for the institutionalization of the opposition in that country in the coming period."

Walker attributed Kyrgyzstan’s improvement to presidential elections there. "[There are] a number of factors, one being the elections held in the early summer, which proved to be an improvement over previous elections," he said. "The organization around the elections were regarded to be stronger, as well as continued political activism on a number of issues, which also revealed themselves to be far more vigorous than one finds in any of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors."

However, Freedom House’s annual surveys cover a period from the beginning of December of any given year till the end of November of the next year. That means this week’s reported reversal by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on a pledge to reform the constitution, and the reported to takeover an independent television station earlier this month were not included in the latest status assessment of Kyrgyzstan.

Elsewhere in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Freedom House saw declines. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan solidified their not-free status.

And Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan now share a dubious distinction: the lowest possible rating on political rights and civil liberties. Only six countries worldwide shared that status: North Korea, Libya, Cuba, Syria, Sudan, and Myanmar. Uzbekistan, moreover, went a notch lower for civil liberties compared to its previous rating.

Although they share the same rating, Walker told RFE/RL Turkmenistan is considered less free than Uzbekistan. "Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have shared profound problems in terms of basic rights," he said. "Turkmenistan in a number of ways was ahead of the curve in terms of its closing of its borders and people to the world, and in many ways has become a curious and dreadful regime. Uzbekistan had at least too recently, a higher level of engagement, with among others the United States. That has slipped and concurrent with that has been increased repression that the Uzbek regime has applied towards its own citizens."

But overall, the Freedom House report says freedom made progress in 2005. Eighty-nine countries are considered free. That’s nearly half the world’s population. Another 18 percent of people live in partly free countries, which number 58.

Still, more than a third of the world’s people live in 45 countries that Freedom House considers decidedly not free.

(More on the report can be found at