In its latest report, U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House warns of a "stunning democratic breakdown" across Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia as many leaders in the region attempt to do away with any remaining checks on their power.
"A growing number of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe have dropped even the pretense that they play by the rules of democracy. They openly attack democratic institutions and are working to restrict individual freedoms," the group says in its annual Nations In Transit report, released on May 6.
The report says the attacks on democratic institutions could be accelerated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said the health crisis also creates an "inflection point" after which things could become much worse, or democracy could be revitalized.
The hope is that the experience of the epidemic "will illustrate the importance of transparent and accountable governance and catalyze new demands for change," Abramowitz said.
Freedom House says that the number of democracies in the 29 countries covered in the report is at its lowest point ever at just 10.
The overall democracy score for the region, an average of all the countries assessed, declined for the 16th year in a row.
The report says the slippage of democratic reforms is demonstrated through the manipulation of electoral frameworks that gives undue advantage to incumbents, parliaments that have been sidelined by opposition boycotts, and smear campaigns against independent media and civil society.
It also says the judiciary and the rule of law have become targets in many countries through such maneuvers as packing courts with loyalists and adopting restrictive laws that do away with judicial independence.
The report’s judicial framework and independence category had the largest number of declines, with six countries registering a deterioration: the Czech Republic, Georgia, Latvia, Montenegro, Poland, and Slovakia.
The report identifies several countries that have been downgraded according a rating on democratic progress. It says Poland has dropped out of the group of consolidated democracies and is now rated a semi-consolidated democracy.
Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro have all left the category of democracies entirely and are now classified as transitional government/hybrid regimes.
The report singles out EU member Hungary as having the largest drop ever recorded in the 25 years since Freedom House -- a nonprofit organization largely funded by the U.S. government -- published its first Nations In Transit report.
The country’s democracy score has been on a steep decline in the past decade and the report describes Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a leader who has "dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions."
Similarly, Poland, also an EU member state, moved downward, becoming a semi-consolidated democracy largely because of losses in judicial framework and independence over the past five years.
The report also notes that in Russia, which is classified as an authoritarian regime, President Vladimir Putin's constitutional reforms, which if implemented, would allow him to retain his post beyond two terms, "demonstrate a contempt for the rule of law and the basic principles of constitutional government."
There were positive developments in some places, such as in Kosovo, the only country to secure gains in each of the last five years, and in North Macedonia, which saw multiple score improvements.
Armenia also gained its highest score based on improvements related to elections and corruption.
Ukraine’s national democratic governance score saw a slight improvement, and Uzbekistan’s corruption score improved from rock bottom based on recent efforts to root out petty graft.