In a new report, Freedom House warns that economic woes are threatening the stability of "entrenched dictatorships" in the former Soviet Union, the migration crisis is fueling populism in Eastern Europe, and reforms in the Balkans are in retreat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's "naked embrace of autocracy" deepened in 2015, the U.S.-based human rights group says.
Freedom House made the assessments in its annual Nations In Transit report, which monitors the democratic development of 29 countries in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and Central Europe. It was published on April 12.
The report assigns each country a score to measure democratic progress. Weighted for population, the average Democracy Score in the 29 countries covered has declined for 12 years in a row.
On The Brink
The situation is particularly grim in the former Soviet Union, where seven countries are led by "dictators" who have been in power for at least 10 years -- Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Freedom House says the collapse in global commodity prices, especially oil, combined with U.S. and European sanctions on Russia and Russian countersanctions, has driven economies of the region "to the brink."
Economic troubles have pushed Russia into recession and triggered similar currency crises and budget shortfalls in other oil- and gas-producing countries including Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.
The crisis has also rippled through non-energy-based economies that are dependent on Russia through subsidies and migrant labor, with Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan "also facing possible recession in 2016," the report says.
Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations In Transit, told RFE/RL that these states now have to face the consequences after years of failing to diversify their economies or create transparent and accountable systems of government.
"It's certainly likely that there's going to be considerably more social protest in this year," he said. "There was probably more in 2015 already."
"Anecdotally, we know that there are large numbers of labor migrants returning, especially to Tajikistan," Schenkkan added. "This then creates a large class of unemployed young men…and that of course is a very potent potential protest group."
Schenkkan said that leaders in the region had responded with measures intended to "reaffirm their control."
In Russia, the report says, Putin's "naked embrace of autocracy since his return to the presidency in 2012 deepened in 2015 with an ever-harsher crackdown on civil society and political organizing."
It says Russian "innovations in authoritarianism," such as restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, spread further within the region.
"One of the foremost among those [new tactics] is the 'foreign agents' law, the branding of NGOs as foreign agents which in Russia has been frankly very effective in driving NGOs underground or forcing them to leave the country or to cease their activities," Schenkkan said. "And you've seen this imitated in a number of countries in Eurasia.
"You have in Tajikistan quite similar legislation that's been applied somewhat arbitrarily and unevenly -- but has been applied," he said. "In Kazakhstan, you have a different kind of NGO restriction…that's also having very, very pernicious effects now that it's being applied in 2016. And in Kyrgyzstan, a 'foreign agents' law has been debated in parliament now for over a year."
The report says Tajikistan's government pursued "one of the harshest crackdowns the region has seen in years," banning the main opposition party and imprisoning its leaders.
The country "began prosecuting lots and lots of civil society activists as well as people like the lawyers of those members who were arrested as well as the lawyers of the lawyers," Schenkkan said.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev held early elections to reaffirm his mandate while signing a new law to "increase control over civil society," he said.
Schenkkan also said that governments were increasingly prosecuting people for speech on online platforms, and that the "charge of inciting ethnic or social hatred is now being applied more widely."
In Kyrgyzstan, he said, the government had been "using the tools of the state, especially the security services, to blacken the names of the opposition and to put its opponents on the back foot and try to prevent them from organizing rallies or organizing expressions of discontent."
The Nations In Transit report says Azerbaijan "continued a crackdown that began in the summer of 2014," citing last year's sentencing of investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova to 7 1/2 years in prison.
In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka freed political prisoners and allowed "mild criticism" ahead of a presidential election in October, in an effort to "court the EU and replace the patronage that Russia can no longer provide," the report says.
Ukraine "remains the single most important opportunity for establishing democracy" in the region, it adds.
The government achieved "some progress" in reforms in 2015, but continuing Russian occupation of Crimea, the separatist conflict in the country's east, widespread corruption, and impunity for crimes during the political upheaval of 2014 are holding back further progress."
"Ukraine is really at a pivot point where they have to go forward," Schenkkan warned. "And if they don't, there's a real significant threat that Ukraine falls back and continues a tradition of very, very corrupt governance."
In the Balkans, Serbia and Montenegro have begun the EU accession process, Albania and Macedonia are official candidates, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates.
But Freedom House says reform "has slowed and now retreated," with the region's average Democracy Score back to where it was in 2004, as the EU struggled to find a balance between ensuring short-term stability in the Balkans and pressing for convergence with European norms.
There has been modest movement "backward," Schenkkan said. In part, he said, that is because some leaders who have dominated their countries' political systems have been "eroding checks and balances and eroding independent institutions that might push back against them."
"That's certainly the case that we see in Serbia, it's very much what we saw in Macedonia, and to another degree in Montenegro," Schenkkan added.
The report says that state-building in Kosovo and Bosnia has reached an "impasse," with governmental structures built to keep the peace preventing progress, and political and economic stagnation fueling popular frustration.
It also describes "gradual success in functionalizing local governance and protecting media" in Kosovo.
These developments risk being compounded by European border closings to prevent migrants from reaching the EU, the report notes.
With crippling youth-unemployment rates, turning the Balkans "into an island inside Europe would be catastrophic for the region's development," Schenkkan warned.
Meanwhile, Freedom House warns that the EU's "disjointed response" to the migration crisis has left the door open to xenophobia and nationalism in Central Europe.
It says several leading politicians in the region joined Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in using xenophobic rhetoric to denounce migrants, positioning themselves as protectors of their countries' Christian identity against a Muslim "invasion."
Schenkkan said that renewed nationalism, as well as the erosion of freedom of movement and other fundamental principles, were threatening the consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe and the entire European project.
"The European Union is a project that requires countries to give up some sovereignty in exchange for other benefits. So this very aggressive, nationalist approach to politics and to policy challenges the values of the EU but it also challenges the policies of the EU," he said.
"And as we are seeing, the EU is having a very hard time now transforming and finding new policies in part because of this kind of rejectionist approach by leaders who are not necessarily interested in finding a solution within the EU."