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1997 In Review: Freedom House Sees Human Rights Gains

Washington, 18 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The international human rights monitor, Freedom House, says 1997 was a good year for the cause of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In its annual survey on the state of freedom in the world's nations, Freedom House said today (Thursday) that the decision of the NATO alliance to expand into Central and Eastern Europe, and reformist advances in Bulgaria and Romania were among the most significant achievements for democracy during the past year.

However, the group also said political and economic progress in Russia and Ukraine was set back because of rampant corruption, and it said Belarus was languishing under the virtual one-man tyranny of authoritarian president Aleksandr Lukashenka.

Freedom House was established in 1941 to promote liberty and democracy around the world. It evaluates human rights conditions, sponsors public education campaigns, organizes programs to promote democracy and free market reforms and provides support for free media, the rule of law and effective local government.

The organization is based in New York, and numbers among its board of directors many prominent Americans from public and private life, including former U.S. National Security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, retired U.S. trades union leader Lane Kirkland and former United Nations ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

For the past 25 years, Freedom House has published an annual survey on the status of freedom around the world using a system that rates nations as "free", "partly free", or "not free".

Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky says in an introduction to the report that in 1997, a record 81 of the world's 191 nations qualified as free. He says that is the highest number recorded in the 25-year history of the survey.

However, he also says the Freedom House survey concluded that the wave of global democratization that began two decades ago may now be receding. Karatnycky says further expansion of democratic governments is becoming less likely as the United States and other established democracies shrink away from vigorous efforts to support democratic voices in some of the most repressive societies.

Karatnycky says that, "in the cases of China and the oil-rich Gulf states, economic interests predominate and there is a hands-off attitude in terms of committing significant resources to promote democratic change in these closed societies."

Another independent human rights monitor, Human Rights Watch, came to a similar conclusion earlier this month. In its annual report on human rights conditions around the world, Human Rights Watch charges that the U.S. and several leading European democracies refrained from pressing for human rights improvements in China for fear of angering the Chinese government and losing out on potential trade deals.

China was ranked at the top of the Freedom House list of what it calls the "worst of the worst," -- nations where civil and political rights are non-existent, where there is no free press and where independent civic life is suppressed. The other countries on the worst of the worst list were: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the Freedom House survey says the decision of NATO to invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to join the alliance was a major step forward for the integration of the former communist countries into the Western democratic world.

Karatnycky says NATO's move strengthens the sense of security in the new democracies and tells all democratic reform forces in the region that the West is open to their political and military integration.

The survey also highlights gains in freedom in Bulgaria and Romania. Karatnycky says these countries had lagged behind other former communist states in the region. But he says both took major strides forward in 1997 under the leadership of free market reform parties.

At the same time, Freedom House says that what it calls the growth of Serbian ultra-nationalism was one of the year's greatest setbacks for freedom. The survey says the dramatic surge in the popularity of the Serbian Radical Party and its extremist leader Vojislav Seselj represented a serious obstacle in the search for Balkan peace and reconciliation.

According to Freedom House, the annual survey is the end result of ongoing investigations by the organization's own regional experts with the help of consultants and human rights specialists. The editors rely on information provided by rights activists, journalists, editors and political figures around the world. Freedom House also sends out its own teams to report on conditions within a country.

The survey seeks to judge all places by a single standard and to point out the importance of democracy and freedom. The survey is guided by a series of questions covering elections, respect for basic human rights and political rights, the existence of a political opposition and whether the country is free from domination by a particular elite or ethnic group or religion.

Among the former communist countries, Freedom House notes that Georgia made the most progress toward liberalizing its democratic and civic institutions. It says Azerbaijan moved gradually toward limited freedom, but remained a repressive state dominated by President Heidar Aliyev.

The survey also cites progress in Latvia, where the report says a strong civil society and a more financially healthy media were developing.

Freedom House says Slovakia should be closely watched in the year ahead. In Slovakia, Freedom House asserts that a democratically elected prime minister (Vladimir Meciar) engages in demagogy and intimidates the press. Yet, Freedom House also says Slovakia has a vibrant civil society and a strong and growing political opposition.

In its ratings of freedom, the Freedom House survey lists nine of the nations in Central and Eastern Europe as free. They are: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia.

Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovakia were classified as "partly free."

In the former Soviet Union, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine were listed as "partly free."

The "not free" category included Belarus, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.