In a new report, Freedom House says Russia is playing a "pivotal role" in a continuing decline in democracy among the countries of the post-Soviet sphere.
The U.S.-based watchdog group issued its annual report
on June 12 monitoring democratic development in 29 nations from the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and Central Europe.
The authors of the survey, "Nations in Transit 2014: Eurasia's Rupture with Democracy," say Russia has brought the region to "a new, alarming level of repression" during the past year.
Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, the project director for "Nations in Transit" at Freedom House, told RFE/RL that Russia symbolizes the "dramatic decline" in the democratic indicators that are measured by the survey and "in many ways [is] influencing the turn-away from democracy."
The report shows the average democracy score declined again in the region in 2013, as it has every year for the past decade. Sixteen countries suffered downgrades, five improved, while eight didn't register any changes in score.
Corruption increased throughout the area, with half of the 10 assessed European Union member states receiving downgrades.
In the 12 former Soviet countries that are not members of the EU, democracy has been in "steep decline" for over a decade, leaving nearly 80 percent of the region's population living under what Freedom House calls "consolidated authoritarian regimes."
Those include Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Freedom House says the environment for civil society became "more hostile" in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
The report says the Kremlin "actively pursued a policy of intensified repression," using a series of new laws to persecute the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, harass independent civil society, expand state control over the media, and bring the Internet to "heel."
Kremlin Inspires Others
Russia also served as the "model and inspiration for policies leading to a retreat from free institutions throughout Eurasia."
Measures similar to Russian laws restricting "homosexual propaganda" and foreign funding of NGOs have been brought up for discussion, proposed, or introduced in a number of countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and even EU-member Latvia.
Kazakhstan received a fourth consecutive downgrade in its civil-society rating in 2013 due to "broad extralegal enforcement of its already strict 2011 law on religious activity."
As a result, Habdank-Kolaczkowska says, there were "many, many, many arrests, charges, raids, and confiscations of religious materials" in Kazakhstan throughout 2013.
Habdank-Kolaczkowska says the run-up to Azerbaijan's October 2013 presidential election prompted a "really dramatic" government crackdown on civil-society activists, political opponents, and the media.
In Belarus, the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka "pummeled civic activism with a sustained crackdown," the survey says.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continued to earn the report's worst possible rating for civil society -- a 7 on a scale of 1 to 7 -- as they do for most other indicators.
However, civil society proved resilient in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both of which registered rating improvements in that category.
Habdank-Kolaczkowska says Ukraine's "vibrant" civil society resulted in massive protests in November 2013 and eventually the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Along with Kyrgyzstan, Georgia is the only state in the former Soviet Union whose ratings have consistently improved over the last few years, thanks to the increased pluralism they introduced by more free and fair elections in 2012 and 2013.
The Balkans also registered some positive developments in 2013, including productive EU-brokered negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade over ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo.
But the report says "dysfunctional" governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region.
The environment for independent media has deteriorated in Macedonia, which fell back into the category of "transitional regimes," while a long-running political stalemate continued to paralyze the central government in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
According to Habdank-Kolaczkowska, Bosnia-Herzegovina has become the "poster child, the warning, for dysfunctional governance."