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Advocacy Group Says Freedom On Decline

Voting in Iran, which the report describes as 'not free' (Fars) 2007 was a bad year for freedom, according to a prominent rights-advocacy organization that has registered a global decline in political rights and civil liberties for the second consecutive year.

In its annual "Freedom Of The World" report released today, the New York-based group Freedom House found that one-fifth of the 193 countries it studied suffered setbacks last year. None of the states that earned the lowest designation, "not free," in 2006 showed any improvement last year, and it was the first time in the report's 15-year history that a two-year decline had been recorded.

The countries of the former Soviet Union were among the worst performers, with parliamentary elections late in the year in Russia, rated "not free," highlighting the perilous environment in the region's most influential state.

"It's fair to say that freedom is seriously lacking in this region or unit, that is to say the former Soviet Union," Freedom House Director of Studies Chris Walker told RFE/RL. "Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven of those are assessed by Freedom House as 'not free,' four are 'partly free,' and one is 'free' [Ukraine]. So, it's a very challenging landscape for freedom in that part of the world."

Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are among the "worst of the worst" countries in the world in terms of human rights, and are joined on the list of "not free" countries by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Two countries looked upon as examples of positive democratic change, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, both rated "partly free," took steps backward -- with Russia's influence in obstructing reforms being noted in the case of Kyrgyzstan.

"There were big hopes for Kyrgyzstan and Georgia that if new people came to power, then [the new governments] would apply democratic principles by their actions and pressure [on the opposition] would stop," Ilim Karypbekov, director of the Media Representative Institute in Kyrgyzstan, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"However, if you look at Georgia, protest rally participants were beaten up again," Karypbekov continues. "At the same time, international observer missions showed that the [Georgian presidential] election was held under enormous pressure [on the opposition] and with the use of administrative resources. The same happened in Kyrgyzstan's [early parliamentary elections in December 2007]."

Joining Kyrgyzstan and Georgia among the former Soviet states considered "partly free" were Armenia and Moldova.

The best of the bunch is Ukraine, which Walker says remains "free" because it has competing factions with well-defined positions, and a population that accepts the results of well-conducted elections.

Democracy in Georgia, rated "partly free," suffered in 2007 due to President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's ability to dominate the political scene. The imposition of a state of emergency and a violent police crackdown on opposition rallies late in the year served to highlight the country's problems, according to Freedom House, but Walker notes that there is room for vocal dissent in the country.

'A Semblance Of Freedom'

Russia is a different matter altogether, according to Walker.

"2007 was a pivotal year for authoritarian consolidation in Russia in part due to the manipulated parliamentary elections in December, and the managed succession process which really revealed itself by the end of the year where it became very clear that there would not be an opportunity for ordinary Russians to have an open and fair selection of their next president," Walker says.

A man in Nizhny Novgorod, who requested anonymity, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that "I've never been to other countries, so I can't say how the situation in our country is different from theirs. But compared to the Soviet Union, I don't see any radical changes."

"We never had freedom even though they tried to create it in the 1990s," the man adds. "What we are left with now, at least in my opinion, is a semblance of freedom."

A man in Yekaterinburg, meanwhile, tells the service that freedoms in Russia cannot be compared with those in European countries.

"I think we're at the level of Central Asian countries where rights and freedoms basically exist on paper but in reality [are not upheld]," he says. "The presidential election campaign has exceeded all limits because there is a cult of personality, and that is taking us back to the past."

Of the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, most advanced on the road to freedom, according to the report. Only Latvia -- rated "free" -- and Bosnia -- rated "partly free" -- showed signs of moving backward during 2007.

Aneta Grosu, editor in chief of the weekly investigative magazine "Ziarul de Garda," describes the situation in Moldova, which retained its "partly free" rating.

"Year by year it is more difficult with freedoms in Moldova: with press freedom, freedom of different opinions, human rights," Grosu tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. "And for us, journalists, it is more and more difficult to do our job in these circumstances. Access to information is more limited, there is tougher punishment for what the authorities call libel, sometimes we face threats or acts of revenge from people we write about."

The report characterized Iran as "not free" and called it a "dictatorship," accusing it of not only suppressing the rights of its people, but also of imposing its influence on other countries through the support of Muslim militants.

Iraq, too, is rated "not free" because it has limited freedom, given the persistent sectarian fighting between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims that poisons daily life in much of the country.

Government Backlash

Walker says the annual report is meant to be studied by all those with influence in the countries that are rated, from government officials to members of the local news media. The point: to spark debate about how freedoms can be improved.

Sometimes, however, governments react with hostility, Walker says, again pointing to Russia as an example.

The work of nongovernmental organizations, including Freedom House, has been increasingly scrutinized in Russia, which argues that some countries use such entities work to spread their influence in Russia.

Recently Russia opened branches of its own Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris and New York, with the intention of improving Russia's image abroad.

The organization's chairman, Anatoly Kucherena, recently told "The Moscow Times" that the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation has "no desire to copy the behavior of organizations like Freedom House...which has only one goal: to publish data which was assembled using methodologies that nobody understands, in order to draw attention to themselves."

Walker says that "attacks on our findings" aren't based on the substance of the report.

And, he says, too often governments criticized in the report fail to debate such findings with the country's opposition.

"The local civil society in the country like Russia should have a right to talk about these findings without fear of reprisal and the hope is that it will help identify areas of concern, areas where there are problems, areas where there are possibilities for improvement so that domestic institutions can take the steps to make those improvements," Walker says. "I think that ultimately is the fundamental hope here."

(RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev interviewed Freedom House's Christopher Walker.)