There is only one region in the world where political rights and civil liberties have been in continuous decline since 2001 -- the wide swath of territory made up of countries of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states.
That's according to Arch Puddington and Christopher Walker, the principal authors of the latest "Freedom in The World"
report compiled annually by the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House.
The authors say there is no general explanation for the region's downward trend. But Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, lists a handful of possible factors.
One is the legacy of the Soviet Union; the other is Russia's undemocratic influence; and the third is the economic power attained by regimes in gas- and oil-rich countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
"The former Soviet Union [excluding the Baltic states] over the past five years, over the past decade, basically has gone from one decline to another decline. And Russia has led the way," Puddington says. "But you have one of the most repressive regions in the world in Central Asia, where Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are right at the bottom of our Freedom Index. And Tajikistan also has very low scores, as does Azerbaijan."'Disappointing Declines'
The two major negative developments in the former Soviet space, according to the report, is the disputed presidential election in Belarus in December, which was followed by a violent crackdown on protesters, and the overall decline in freedom in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
"Ukraine was the one country in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union that we had ranked as 'free' -- as a free country -- the only country in that region," he says. "And after last year’s developments, we now rank Ukraine as 'partly free.' And we can say that this is for a single country one of the most important and disappointing declines for 2010."
Walker, Freedom House’s director of studies, says the negative trends in Ukraine include curbs on press freedom, the intimidation of civil society, and greater government influence on the judiciary.
"Ironically, President [Viktor] Yanukovych's election victory last year was, in many ways, an unexpected democratic inheritance of the Orange Revolution," Walker says. "The areas that we saw improvements from the end of 2004 until  were precisely the areas that have come under greatest stress during the last year. So this would be the election process, media openness, and civil society."
Members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, however, were quick to dispute the report’s findings.
“We in the Regions Party can only perplexed by this," said the party’s deputy chairman in parliament, Vadym Kolesnichenko, who spoke to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
"For seven months we’ve been talking about this absurd topic under the heading of “freedom of speech” and “censorship of the media” but no one has been able to show one single concrete example. So this classification can only perceived with amazement -- particularly when there are claims that we are enemies of the opposition. I don’t think any country has demonstrated a more loyal attitude towards the opposition, which does nothing and stops us from working,” Kolesnichenko said.
With Ukraine's slide to the "partly free" category, there are now no countries ranked "free" in the former Soviet Union, with the notable exception of the three Baltic states.'Increased Brazenness'
But even in the Baltic states, Walker says, the picture is far from rosy, with Latvia deserving special attention. Controversy surrounds the ownership change in 2010 of "Diena," Latvia's main daily newspapers, which has raised serious concerns about the coverage of meaningful political events in the country. This media transparency issue negatively affects the overall democratic process in Latvia, according to the report.
Russia and Belarus were listed among the world's most powerful authoritarian regimes, along with Iran, China, and Venezuela. These countries, according to Freedom House, acted with "increased brazenness" in 2010.
In the former Soviet space, Walker says Russia, which was named "not free," continued to set the tone.
"[The] cases of [laywer] Sergei Magnitsky
and [jailed oil tycoon] Mikhail Khodorkovsky
at the end of the year in many ways exemplified the depths of the corruption not only of the judicial system in Russia but of the wider systemic challenges that the country faces," Walker says. "Because what you’ve seen in both of these cases is the intersection of interests that come together to prevent any sort of rule of law being exercised."
The media sector in Russia, according to Freedom House, has been unable to examine important issues in a meaningful and ongoing basis; the judiciary is subjected to heavy interference and is unable to operate in an independent manner; and political activities are strictly sanctioned and devised in a way that there is no meaningful accountability across institutions.
Despite the grim overall picture, Paddington and Walker say there were bright spots in 2010, notably in Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Georgia.
"Kyrgyzstan showed some gains after all the commotion early in the year when [President Kurmanbek] Bakiev was forced out," Puddington says. "You’ve had a new constitution, and you’ve had elections that were pretty good, and you’ve had a new government that seems superior to the old Bakiev government."Iran's Slide
Iran was identified as being on a downward trend and received the "not free" label. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' rising economic and political clout was singled out as a reason for Iran's slide, as was the "sentencing of the entire leadership of the Baha'i community to lengthy prison terms."
Across the globe, a total of 25 countries showed significant declines in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as "free" fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123.
Other significant developments included the downgrade of Mexico from "free" to "partly free" due to incidents related to ongoing drug wars and resulting violence and intimidation. Another negative development regarding freedom was China's vigorous campaign against the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo.
At the Washington release of the report, Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, pointed to its value in helping shape U.S. foreign policy:
"We start with a commitment to the fidelity of the truth and this report gives us a lot of information [and] a lot of detail about what's actually happening in the world. That's a basis for action," he said.
However, Posner added that attempting to force change from outside is difficult, and while foreign governments can seek to cultivate the conditions for a freer society, its source is ultimately the people of the country themselves.
with contributions from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service