The report, called "Nations In Transit 2006," focuses on Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Russia, countries that are growing economically based on energy resources.
But the report argues that they are all plagued by weak institutions, deteriorating standards of governance, worsening media and judicial freedoms, and rising corruption.
Accountability To Build Prosperity
Jeanette Goehring, who edited the Freedom House report, says the leaders of those countries don't seem to understand that improving accountability could help boost prosperity even more.
"Instead, they are taking advantage of high energy prices by building authoritarian regimes that are unresponsive to their citizens and unreliable in the international sphere," Goehring says.
To measure the rise or decline of democratic standards in a given country, Freedom House has developed a technique for evaluating performance in specific areas, such as how free the media and judiciary are, and how free and fair elections are. On this scale, a score of one indicates a consolidated democracy, and a score of seven -- the lowest -- represents a consolidated authoritarian regime.
On this scale, both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan score near the bottom -- 6.39 for Kazakhstan and 6.96 for Turkmenistan.
The report suggests these are not the only two Central Asian countries suffering a deficit of democracy, says Goehring. "The Central Asian countries have been moving away from democratic practices toward authoritarian forms of governance," she says. "'Nations In Transit 2006' shows that this has been continuing and even accelerating in the Central Asian region."
The Freedom House report finds that the reelection of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2005 "greatly limits the possibility for democratic development" in Kazakhstan.
"In Kazakhstan the government's quest for social and financial stability has led it to centralize control and restrict most democratic freedoms in the country, which actually forms a structure which is not stable for long-term development," Goehring says.
The report says this indicates that restrictions on opposition parties and media will continue to increase. It also means that government, at all levels, and the judiciary will remain open to manipulation by political and business interests close to the president.
Turning to Turkmenistan, Freedom House found that President Sapamurat Niyazov -- known as "Turkmenbashi" -- is still trying to isolate his people from the outside world.
"Gas pipelines create mutual dependency between suppliers and buyers," Goehring said. "Turkmenbashi seems not to recognize this, because he has been consistently isolating his people from the international community."
Also, the Turkmen government manipulates elections, uses the judiciary as an instrument of repression, and refuses to address human rights concerns.
Further, the report says the government continues to harass civil-society groups, including religious communities, while Niyazov builds a cult around himself.
During 2005, Niyazov took direct control over the country's energy resources, allegedly to counter corruption. But Freedom House says this move provides the opportunity for Niyazov to increase his own finances.
Turning to Azerbaijan, the report finds that the state of civil society has declined because of continued government harassment, including detentions, fines, university expulsions, and physical abuse, especially among youth groups linked to the political opposition.
Azerbaijan Under Ilham Aliyev
Corruption remains one of the greatest hurdles to democratic progress.
Noting that President Ilham Aliyev consolidated his hold on power during 2005, Freedom House says the November parliamentary elections were marked by irregularities and failed to meet international standards.
"We see a tightening of the concentration around the presidential elite," said Kristie Evenson, director of Freedom House's Budapest office. "We see the November elections -- which were highly questionable -- plus a clampdown on civil society, and a judicial framework and processes more laughable than anything [else]."
The report gives Azerbaijan a democracy rating of 5.93.
Russian Democracy In Decline
Turning to Russia, "Nations In Transit 2006" grants Russia the best rating of the four featured countries -- 5.75. But that is a significant drop (0.14 points) in one year, caused largely by President Vladimir Putin's centralization of control over political life, which runs counter to previous democratic developments in Russia.
Ratings fell in a range of categories: national governance, the electoral process, corruption, and civil society. Evenson describes Russia as worrying.
"We are quite concerned about Russia, in that what we are seeing of course is energy that is continuing to improve the economic situation, but the political institutions are becoming more and more fragile," she said.
The report argues that the Russian government has failed to adopt effective policies for easing conflict and tension in the North Caucasus. It has also shown itself unable to reform the military and the police, all of which has fed growing extremism.
The report says there has been an "onslaught" against media freedoms, and the "near obliteration" of nongovernmental organizations. There has also been harassment of the opposition and legal moves making it more difficult to monitor elections independently.
Money Buys Happiness -- For Dictators
So why are democratic standards declining at a time when the economic situation is improving in a number of regions?
"The more money a government has, the easier for it to take on authoritarian tendencies and not have its people particularly complain," Evenson says. "And in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan you still have a standard of living which is growing, so expectations of the population have been met, at least for the short term."
But she cautions that if wealth is progressively concentrated into the hands of elites, then this social pact could come under pressure.
Police in Moscow arrest human rights demonstrators on February 1 (courtesy photo)
THE RECORD ON RIGHTS: On March 8, the U.S. State Department issued its global report on human rights. According to the report, 15 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, human rights are improving in many post-communist countries. But problems persist in others, it says, despite the worldwide explosion of information and Western efforts to spread democracy. (more)
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