Populists' recent successes at the polls in the West have increased fears of instability in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia against a backdrop of setbacks for democratic governance, democracy monitor Freedom House has warned.
It says that over the past year, the United Kingdom's "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union, Dutch voters' opposition to an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, and political outsider Donald Trump's election as U.S. president "all raised fresh doubts about the fragile post-Cold War order."
The findings are published in the New York-based group's latest annual Nations In Transit report, subtitled The False Promise Of Populism.
"Brexit and the new administration in the United States have emboldened antidemocratic populists in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans," Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit for Freedom House, told RFE/RL.
"Now, a critical mass of leaders in this region are openly rejecting the idea of liberal democracy and this populism is increasingly combining with crude ethnic nationalism in a way that threatens peace in Europe,” Schenkken told RFE/RL.
The report asserts that a populist "revival" has been under way in Europe since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power in 2010 and "eviscerated" checks and balances in that EU member state, and continued with attacks on civil society and the press in the Balkans and "nativist fear-mongering over migration across Europe."
Schenkkan says that "leaders and ordinary citizens need to respond to the direct challenge to democracy by speaking up for its principles: diversity of opinion and identity, constraints on the will of the majority, and checks on executive power."
Freedom House calls 2016 a triumph for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who for the past decade "has backed populists in Europe and the United States as part of a covert effort to destabilize the transatlantic order."
The report says that despite Russia’s continuing economic stagnation, Putin "seems tantalizingly close to his goal of a new division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres of influence."
The Nations in Transition report covers 29 postcommunist countries of the former Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The report says 18 of them suffered declines this year in their so-called democracy scores, leaving more "consolidated authoritarian regimes" in the region than "consolidated democracies."
Freedom House compares the slippage to a drop in 2008, when the global financial crisis stalled political reforms.
In Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, "years of populism and corruption have eroded once-promising democratic institutions," while in Eurasia, "personalist authoritarianism has gone from a burgeoning trend to an entrenched norm," Freedom House says.
This year, Kyrgyzstan, which ousted a Soviet-era president in pro-democracy unrest in 2005, fell back into the Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes category.
Kyrgyzstan’s backsliding leaves only four former Soviet states outside the Baltics -- Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- ranked above the category of Consolidated Authoritarian Regime.
Freedom House says constitutional referendums in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia in the past two years each helped "entrench the presidents' parties and an oligarchic elite even further."
The group called Ukraine, Kosovo, and Romania "bright spots" in the Nations in Transition 2017 report.
In Ukraine, corruption is still widespread and the ongoing military conflict in its eastern regions undermines the country’s economy. But despite the setbacks, it says, there have been "significant changes" as civil society in Ukraine -- with the backing of the United States, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- has kept pressure on the government.
As part of Ukraine's reforms, the parliament approved wide-ranging judicial reforms, including items that required constitutional changes, and put in place a comprehensive anticorruption framework modeled on EU best practices, the report says.
"In our survey, we saw Ukraine continuing to make progress in 2016, but at the same time there are seriously troubling signs that an old guard resistant to building an accountable state could still defeat reforms," Schenkkan said. "What is needed is that Ukraine’s international supporters continue the 'tough love' approach of the last three years supporting local civil society."
In the Balkans, Kosovo moved up from a Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian Regime to a Transitional/Hybrid Regime this year.
"Kosovo started at the lowest starting point in the Balkans in our survey and, over the past decade, it has made progress towards consolidating statehood and building its own institutions," Schenkkan said.
"But it only gets harder from here," Schenkkan warned, adding that "the country’s government and political parties need to enforce accountability for corruption and they have to make difficult policy decisions on issues like minority representation and European integration."
Elsewhere in the Balkans, Serbia’s score for democracy reached its lowest point since 2003, despite its progress in EU accession negotiations.