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Central Europe: Democracy Report Says New EU, NATO Members 'Backsliding'

Hungary's 2006 political crisis, which led to widespread protests, was a low point in democratic reform (epa) June 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House says in its latest report that the countries of Central Europe have shown a decline in democratic progress -- despite membership in NATO and the European Union.

The "Nations in Transit" report, which reviews democratic standards in 29 countries and territories in the former Soviet sphere, may sound a cautionary note for other transitional countries aspiring to integrate with the West.

Past reports have focused on the countries of the former Soviet Union -- particularly Russia, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian states, which are seen as sliding toward authoritarian rule.

This year, however, the study looks further west, to the countries of Central Europe. There -- according to Jeannette Goehring, the editor of the "Nations in Transit" survey -- some disturbing trends have been seen, despite the countries' accession into the European Union.

"I hope it will be an encouragement as well as a warning," the study's editor said.

"There's been some downsliding; there have been crises of confidence, either in the political parties or in the governments,” Goehring said."There was a lot of partisanship that took precedence over continuing reform and...pushing forward what was the best for the country and working within democratic institutions."

Not Bad, But Not Improving

The 10 Central European countries -- the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the three Baltic states -- still have the best scores according to the report's "democracy score."

That score represents each country's ratings on electoral process, independent media, corruption, and other democratic standards. It is based on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic development, and 7 the lowest.

The Central European countries all receive a democracy score of between 1.82 (Slovenia) and 3.29 (Romania) in this year's survey. For all but two of the countries, however, the scores are equal to or worse than last year's rankings.

Particular downturns were noted in Hungary, where a political crisis raged in September 2006 following the revelation that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had repeatedly lied about the state of the national economy in order to win reelection.

Another trouble spot was Poland, where critics say "the twins" -- President Lech Kaczynski and his brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- conspired to centralize power, push through a controversial lustration policy, and dissolve the country's civil service corps.

Pressure From East And West

Goehring says the survey may be significant for those countries in the "Nations in Transit" survey that aspire to follow in the footsteps of the Central European countries and eventually join the EU or NATO.

"Democratic government is a process and people are just at different points on the path. So I hope it will be an encouragement as well as a warning, just seeing where other people are at different points on the path," Goehring said. "And usually, there's assistance that goes both ways. There's no reason that Ukrainians and Georgians, Moldovans, can't look at what's happening in Hungary or Poland and have their own critical voices about it or put pressure on them as well."

The Nations in Transit survey notes a continuation of antidemocratic trends in much of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Balkans, although slight upturns were seen in Georgia, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia.

No change was noted in Macedonia, Moldova, Kosovo, or any of the Central Asian states. But Goehring said a lack of change should not lead to complacency.

"The Central Asian countries this year have stalled; there was actually not a lot of movement. But the fact that they're stalled near the bottom, as the most repressive region, is not perhaps as encouraging as otherwise stalling may be. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the most repressive countries in the study," she said.

Downward trends were indicated in Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro.

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