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East: Freedom Continues To Make Gains

The New York-based international human rights monitor, Freedom House, says momentum towards freedom around the world was sustained during 1999. But the news was not as positive for the post-Communist world and - most notably - the former Soviet Union, where the picture remains mixed. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports:

Washington, 22 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Freedom House's end-of-century, annual world freedom survey, released Tuesday in Washington, finds that 85 of the world's 192 countries are "free."

This figure represents a drop of three countries from last year. But our correspondent reports the survey's findings registered more significant upward than downward change by a margin of 26 to 18, indicating that freedom continues to make incremental gains.

Overall, Freedom House says 85 countries - or roughly 44 percent of the world total - are free, with inhabitants enjoying a broad range of political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House Chairman Bette Bao Lord elaborates:

"Our findings show that despite the horror of global war and genocide, humankind in fits and starts is rejecting oppression and choosing greater openness and freedom."

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 and political figures around the world. Freedom House also sends out its own teams to report on conditions within a country.

Among its principal findings this year, the survey notes that nearly two-thirds of the world's countries, or 120 countries, have achieved democratic rule - the highest number of democracies ever.

It also indicated that the democratic momentum observed elsewhere is manifesting itself more deeply in the Islamic world. Freedom House President Adrian Karatnycky spoke to that element of the report:

"In fact today, by our calculations, the majority of Muslims live under democratically elected governments and in some of the Islamic monarchies, as well as in Iran, there is movement - gradual - towards greater public participation and greater public ferment (passion) and a desire to function in greater accordance with democratic practices. This represents a great hope for the next Century."

But Karatnycky said ten years after the collapse of communism, the reality of freedom in the post-communist world remains "mixed." He said that in Central Europe and parts of the Balkans, modest gains for freedom were recorded.

But with the exception of the three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - Karatnycky said countries of the former Soviet Union show signs of political stagnation and, in the case of Russia, experienced actual decline.

He said Russia's war in Chechnya resumed with a brutal vengeance, accompanied by the growing influence of representatives from the security services in the upper echelons of power.

Chechnya was branded the world's least free territory, while Russia's military campaign in the breakaway republic was designated the number one major setback for freedom in the world in 1999.

But even before this setback, Karatnycky said Chechnya was far from free:

"Chechnya would not have a free rating or even a partly free rating if it had not been invaded by the Russians. It has a very strict enforcement of Sharia law, it has a very strong influence of these militias and military warlords who have grown up in the struggle from 1994-96 against Russia, so it would not be an environment where we would say that Chechnya was a democratically vibrant state."

Freedom House's Karatnycky said Chechnya was a state that had some limited degree of pluralistic practices, but he said it also had a lot of serious human rights problems before the Russian invasion and Russian attack.

Belarus, under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, retained its title as Eastern Europe's most repressive state.

Other "worst of the worst" nations cited in the survey were communist Cuba and North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan.

Western Europe, on the other hand, retained its title as the "most democratic" region in the world, with 24 democracies representing 100 percent of the states in the region. Democracies also predominate in the Americas, where only one country - Cuba - is listed as not free.

Of the 14 countries in the Middle East, only one country is free - Israel.

According to the Freedom House survey, the Islamic world remains most resistant to the spread of democracy and civil liberties, especially in the Arab countries. And it listed the new military dictatorship in Pakistan, which toppled a democratically elected, albeit corrupt regime, as one of the five major setbacks for freedom in the world in 1999. Regional specialist Charles Graybow explains why:

"Previous military governments in Pakistan created many of today's problems by undermining democratic institutions, by introducing Islam into politics, and past military governments in Pakistan all started out the way this one has: by saying they would clean up corruption and then just hanging on and hanging on and becoming more brutal. For all their problems, elected governments in South Asia and elsewhere have done a much better job at protecting basic liberties than military governments have, and they probably have done a much better job running the economies, which is something that people overlook."

Unbounded corruption was cited as another setback for freedom this past year. Freedom House says the growth of crony capitalism, money laundering, bribery and other forms of corruption continues, even as concern about corruption became more acute.

According to Freedom House, corruption ranks as the number one obstacle to democratic consolidation in many countries struggling against the legacy of dictatorship.

But overall, Freedom House says supporters of democratic transition can take heart that efforts to strengthen democratic movements and values around the world have contributed to a significant expansion of freedom registered in the data of this year's survey.

Further, Freedom House says a growing community of "free" nations, linked by shared democratic values and signs of democratic ferment in Islamic countries, bodes well for the promise of continued freedom at the dawn of a new Century.

(Established in 1941, Freedom House aims to promote liberty and democracy around the world through evaluating human rights conditions, sponsoring public education campaigns, and organizing programs to promote democracy and free market/media reforms.)