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East: Democracy Survey Faults Russia, Tajikistan, Iran

A coffin carries a television set in a protest for greater media freedoms in Russia (file) (ITAR-TASS) WASHINGTON, September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom House, the U.S.-based human-rights advocacy group, has issued "Countries at the Crossroads 2007," the annual update to its ongoing analysis of the level of freedom in 60 countries.

China and Russia topped the list of countries still in the thrall of authoritarian rule yet struggling to control their growing economies. Tajikistan is also having troubles with its growing economy, and despite the promises of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran hasn't been able to translate its great oil wealth into prosperity for its citizens. RFE/RL discussed the report with Sanja Tatic Kelly, the managing editor of "Countries at the Crossroads."

RFE/RL: It seems almost counterintuitive that a country with an authoritarian leadership would have trouble managing its economy efficiently. Can you explain why it doesn't work as well as some might think in nations like, for example, Russia, Tajikistan, and Iran?

Sanja Tatic Kelly: Some of the countries that you identified definitely do exhibit high economic growth. However, it is very important to look at the fabric beneath some of those numbers to see how a society indeed functions on an everyday basis. So if there is a country where freedom of the media is suppressed, if there is no judiciary independence, if corruption is rampant, even if economic growth is present -- is very high -- it is very likely that such growth cannot be sustained in the long run.

"Iran has undergone some of the worst suppressions of free voices in its recent history."

In order for a society to sustain itself, in order for economies to prosper, we first need to get rid of corruption. And if there are no institutions that can do that, and if there are no courts to safeguard some of the basic rights of citizens and businesses, then in the end development and growth are just not sustainable.

RFE/RL: Why do some countries cling to their authoritarian pasts? Is it merely easier than striking out in a new direction? Are the people of these countries so inured to totalitarian governance that even small improvements are welcomed?

Kelly: Sometimes governments and people in power just don't have [the] incentive to let go, and sometimes in countries like those that you mentioned, if the leader is supported, then he or she just doesn't have an incentive to reform institutions. However, in some case that incentive, or at least a mild form of it, can come from abroad. In such cases, in order to receive international recognition or to receive international aid, such as in the case of Tajikistan, countries try to pass laws or promote certain laws that, on the ground, really don't make that much difference. And very often those laws are just not implemented. However, country leaders like to tout those laws as steps or direct and tangible things that they are doing to improve the situation. However, what we need to look at is the actual implementation.

RFE/RL: Authoritarian governments and growing economies are not new. What do you say to those who argue today that countries such as Russia and Tajikistan are merely going through a political phase that many others have experienced, and that democratic reforms will come as their economies mature?

Kelly: We are definitely hoping that these societies will become more open because very often it is just unsustainable for these leaders to maintain a high level of control. With civil society burgeoning and with citizens just voicing their demands and putting pressure on governments, governments often need to liberalize in order to maintain popular support. Even with the most powerful countries, it is very hard or sometimes even impossible to rule by force. So at the same time they're trying to gain some points among their citizens, and if citizens are pushing and they are pushing very hard, then it is very likely that some of the regimes, step by step, will show some improvement.

RFE/RL: How would you summarize what's going on today in Russia?

Kelly: We definitely see a decline in all the categories of governance that our survey examines. Starting with accountability and public voice, which looks at elections and NGOs as well as free media, we actually see a very dramatic constriction of rights in almost all aspects. As you know, opposition in Russia is almost non-existent, and it's being almost completely trumped by a very strong executive branch. Of course there are independent voices that are trying to emerge, but it is becoming more and more difficult. Also we're noticing the state's gradual takeover of the media. More and more newspapers, as well as radio stations and television stations, are being closed down or censored just for saying the wrong things.

Similarly, the well-known NGO laws, which require re-registration of all NGOs in Russia, have proved to be quite burdensome for civil society. It just shows you that the government is trying to control the civil-society sector. In terms of [the] rule of law, there is a very noticeable gap between existence of laws and their implementation. There are many laws on the books that just look wonderful; however, when it comes to their implementation, those laws are being trumped by the interests of the executive. In addition, judicial independence is almost non-existent.

In Russia, "we see a very dramatic constriction of rights in almost all aspects."

RFE/RL: What about Tajikistan?

Kelly: Tajikistan -- actually it's also a grim picture. In terms of accountability and public voice, Freedom House has been extremely worried by the decrease in freedoms of opposition voices. As we know, in 2005 and 2006, Tajikistan had elections, both parliamentary and presidential. And these elections only consolidated the power of PDPT (the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon's party). And there were so many irregularities -- I mean, we're talking about such things as multiple voting, unmonitored tabulation of votes -- and such issues are very important, and such elections cannot be certified as free and fair. In addition, the candidate field has been shrunk quite significantly. So candidates now, because of the new regulations, need, for example, to put $500 deposits in order to run. And of course such regulations are limiting the number of people that can run and that can actually challenge the current status quo.

RFE/RL: Could you summarize the economic situation in Iran?

Kelly: In Iran we have a worrisome trend, and Iran has undergone some of the worst suppressions of free voices in its recent history. Media is completely subdued in terms of its influence in terms of the executive branch, and newspapers are being shut down, and thousands of journalists are being arrested.

So I would say that Iran is really at a critical point right now. In terms of civil liberties, initially when [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad came into power, it seemed that there was some promise that women's rights would be a little bit improved. However, we are just seeing a completely different picture right now. In addition to women facing even more restrictions by the society and by the government, we are seeing general societal pressures to conform to more traditional norms.

Iran's institutions are also completely subdued to the executive branch, and of course the ayatollah being the leader above everyone. In such conditions, it's completely impossible to expect that courts would be able to rule justly and that they would be able to defend the rights of regular people.

"Freedom House has been extremely worried by the decrease in freedoms of opposition voices" in Tajikistan.

RFE/RL: Do these three states -- Russia, Iran, and Tajikistan -- have something in common that they could do to move their countries more quickly toward governance that's accountable to their citizens?

Kelly: That is a difficult question because there is no one solution. Every reform depends on political will, and if there is political will in a certain country, then one can hope that the regime would build state institutions -- meaning that freedom of the press would be guaranteed so [the] press can actually serve in an important role of society's watchdog. It would be important to guarantee judicial independence so [the] rights of citizens are upheld, and also for everyone who is involved in corruption and bribery can actually be held responsible. So the key is to actually strengthen the key state institutions so everyone is treated equally and everyone has a voice.