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East: Poll Finds Fear Of Free Speech In Former Soviet Countries

When the Soviet Union broke up nearly two decades ago, many in the West held out high hopes for its successors. But several of these countries have shown signs of resistance to democratic reform, and the Gallup Organization has conducted two polls to gauge the feeling of the residents of these countries.

The news isn't good: the percentage of respondents in 10 of 14 former Soviet countries surveyed who say most or many fellow countrymen are afraid to speak openly of their political opinions actually increased from 2006 to 2007.

Gallup says that in half of the 14 former Soviet countries, this proportion is now a majority of poll respondents. These countries -- ranging from the highest to the lowest percentage -- are Tajikistan, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Lithuania, and Georgia.

The reasons? Christopher Walker -- an analyst with the New York-based Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group -- says there are "antidemocratic winds" blowing throughout Eurasia.

Walker tells RFE/RL that leaders in the former Soviet states are putting increasing pressure on key institutions for democratic development, including civil society, the freedom to associate, and, just as important, the news media and other information providers.

"These indicators, which we've monitored very closely at Freedom House over the last several years, suggest that institutionally there have been pressures emerging that have really contributed to this feeling of muzzling one's views and self-censoring at a number of levels," Walker says.

In Tajikistan, for example, nearly 70 percent of those polled spoke of their fears of expressing themselves politically. Gallup pointed to President Emomali Rahmon, who has consolidated power since he came to power 14 years ago and marginalized the country's political opposition.

In Uzbekistan, Gallup found more than 55 percent of respondents feared speaking out on political issues. Walker says he's not surprised. In the past two years, he says, the nongovernmental organizations that ordinarily would serve as what he calls a "mediating force," have been shut down, making matters even worse there.

As for Georgia, Gallup cites the country's political turmoil over the past year. Walker says that during and after the country's state of emergency in late 2007, citizens may have felt reluctant to express their political views freely.

But Walker says he expects that the recent presidential election, which President Mikheil Saakashvili won only narrowly, may encourage Georgians to express themselves more freely.

"The hope is that the elections -- certainly the presidential election -- would open the door for a wider range of views and reduce the feelings that people in the country might have of not being able to express themselves without constraints," he says.

The poll found not only that most respondents in these seven countries say they're reluctant to speak openly, but that the number of such respondents is growing. In Tajikistan and Armenia, for example, the percentage rose from about 50 percent in 2006 to nearly 70 percent in 2007.

In Moldova, the percentage ranged from just over 50 percent in 2006 to more than 65 percent in 2007. In Azerbaijan, it rose from less than 50 percent in 2006 to 60 percent last year.

And the largest increases came in Georgia -- from less than 30 percent in 2006 to nearly 55 percent in 2007 -- and in Lithuania -- from less than 30 percent in 2006 to nearly 55 percent in 2007.

So how can such fears be allayed, if the governments in these countries wanted to encourage their people to take part more fully in their own governance? Walker suggests a reform that has become standard remedy for closed societies: open the spigots of communication.

"There's been a real focus by dominant power holders to restrict the information arteries that are critical for free speech and freedom of association, and by this I'm referring to civil society and the media sector," he says. "If you look at those institutions in particular, there should be a refocusing on the ways in which both local reformers and outside organizations can refocus their energies to ensure that the ability of these institutions can be safeguarded."

(The Gallup report can be found here.)

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