NEW YORK -- The latest "Freedom in The World" report by the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House indicates that authoritarian regimes across a broad geographical range are stepping up their suppression of freedom.
Arch Puddington and Christopher Walker, the principal authors of this year's report
, tell RFE/RL that since 2001, the only region in the world where political rights and civil liberties have witnessed a steady decline are the countries of the former Soviet Union, minus the Baltic states.
The authors say there is no general explanation for the region's downward trend.
But Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, points to three possible factors. One is the economic power attained by undemocratic regimes in petroleum-rich countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. The other is the legacy of the Soviet Union, and the third is Russia's influence.
"Russia is the big power in the region. It is huge, it has a lot of influence. And it is an aggressively antidemocratic country right now under [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin," Puddington says.
"It's not simply that Russia is moving away from democratic standards -- it's moving away from democratic standards, and it's being very assertive about its system as superior to democracy," he continues.Oil, Gas No Friend To Freedom
Puddington says that the United States has been making some efforts to consider the question of freedom as it adopts its policies toward the former Soviet states.
At the same time, however, countries with significant oil and gas resources have demonstrated repeatedly that they are willing to ignore the democratic concerns of the United States or the European Union.
In addition, Puddington notes, the West has even taken steps to legitimize freedom-suppressing regimes -- such as Kazakhstan, which in 2010 assumes the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"Russia is the big power in the region. It is huge, it has a lot of influence. And it is an aggressively antidemocratic country right now under Putin."
"That is a significant step to approve what really amounts to a dictatorship as the chairman of an organization whose responsibilities, among other things, is to see that elections meet democratic standards," Puddington says. "And the elections in Kazakhstan certainly haven't done that."
Walker, Freedom House's director of studies, says the 2009 findings reflect in part the cumulative effect of several years of gradually increased repression, as well as severe anti-freedom measures implemented in 2008 -- placing most of the former Soviet republics among the worst performers in the 2009 survey.
"The political-rights scores in recent years for the non-Baltic former Soviet Union have deteriorated sharply, suggesting that power holders in these countries are circumscribing the opportunity for any sort of meaningful participation in a way that suggests very severe problems going forward," Walker says.
"Right now what we see is what can be described as a monopolization of power that's being intensified across the lion's share of countries in the non-Baltic [former Soviet Union]," he adds.
Past Freedom House surveys have shown that former Soviet countries that are rich in energy resources have accelerated their authoritarian tactics as oil and gas prices soared. What Will Falling Prices Do?
As oil prices tumble, Walker says, a new concern is what impact the losses will have on the political stance of these regimes, who often depend on energy windfalls to deliver the social benefits needed to secure their popularity with the public.
While oil prices were high, Walker says, many regimes were able to use their wealth to successfully deflect growing public unrest, and to postpone social and political reforms.
"If you look carefully at Kazakhstan, and in particular Azerbaijan and Russia, in most of the fundamental areas where the markets and outside observers are looking for reforms -- it's been very slow-moving," Walker notes. "And one school of thought is that the enormous windfalls at the disposal of these regimes have allowed them to postpone meaningful reform in the social sector, and the education sector, and so forth."
Walker emphasizes that most of the freedom ratings of the countries of the former Soviet Union have declined in recent years, even though their starting point was very low. What we see now, he says, are repressive systems that are intent on ratcheting up their control over societies even higher.
"The challenges for the democratic community given the pressures that are likely to grow in these systems, where there aren't safety valves, the margin for error by the authorities is shrinking -- it all really suggests potential looming crises in any number of countries in the region," Walker says.
Published since 1972, "Freedom in the World" has been widely recognized as an authoritative source on the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world.
The annual survey notes a decline in freedoms in 2008 in Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Macedonia. The ratings for Belarus and Turkmenistan are unchanged, although Freedom House indicated there are small indications of future improvement.
Afghanistan is among the big losers, according to the report. The country was downgraded from "partly free" to "not free" in its civil liberties ratings. The main reasons for such a downgrade are rising insecurity, increasing corruption, and inefficiency in government institutions.
Pakistan, on the other hand, was upgraded from "not free" to "partly free" in its political rights ratings, due to the end of military-dominated rule and the election of a civilian parliament and president.
This year's survey also examines the impact of authoritarian reprisals in the "colored revolution" countries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
It also attempts to assess the effectiveness of the "freedom agenda" of the outgoing two-term administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, as well as the challenges facing the incoming administration of Barack Obama.