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Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan Criticized For Suppressing Democracy

Freedom House says Russia has used its energy profits to become the leading antidemocratic force in the region.
Almost two decades after the fall of the communist bloc, the vision for a wider Europe "whole and free" has yet to be attained.

This is the conclusion reached by Freedom House in its annual "Nations in Transit" report, which examines democratic transition in the former communist world.

The study blames energy-rich states for hampering the development of democracy in the region. It singles out Russia, which it brands "the leading antidemocratic force" in the post-Soviet region.

Freedom House says Russia's ruling elite further tightened its grip on the political scene, the electoral process, and the media thanks to an "iron triangle" of official state power, industry, and security services.

Thanks to the influence of state institutions and state-owned companies, the report says, Vladimir Putin was able to preserve the status quo by handing the presidential baton this year to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

But while Putin himself retains huge political influence as prime minister, the report casts doubts on how the nascent "Russian experiment in authoritarian capitalism" will fare without Putin at its helm -- without a solid institutional basis for development, the system has reached a "point of fragile stability."

These domestic changes are gradually shaping Russia's foreign policy, with the emergence of what the study calls a "more assertive and belligerent" stance toward its neighbors.

Freedom House says the Kremlin has consistently undermined the efforts of aspiring democracies such as Georgia -- through support of its separatist regions and economic embargoes -- and allowed an unprecedented cyberattack on its neighbor and new EU member Estonia.

Other countries in the region are emulating Russia's increasingly authoritarian political model.

The report points the finger at Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two other countries whose vast energy resources have fuelled economic growth. According to Freedom House, in the past decade Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have witnessed a sharp decline in civil society, electoral process, and media and judicial independence.

Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, tells RFE/RL that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as Russia, have been moving away from democracy in recent years.

"In some of the critical areas of institutional accountability and transparency, the three leading energy-rich countries of the region show a pronounced downward trajectory in our evaluation of them," Walker says.

But energy resources are a factor rather than a cause. The report says these countries' energy riches have acted as "authoritarian propellant" that enabled elites to consolidate their rule at the expense of independent voices.

It also warns of a deepening geopolitical rift between democracies that consume hydrocarbons and states that produce them, as Western nations have yet to develop a common strategy on how to deal with their increasingly authoritarian energy suppliers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that what the report calls "democratically unaccountable countries" are forming alliances and networks outside the Western community, and assaulting international rules-based institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Authoritarian governments within the OSCE last year succeeded in handing the organization's rotating presidency to Kazakhstan, which will become the first nondemocratic state to assume the post when it takes over as OSCE chairman in 2010.

Kazakhstan's nomination came as President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has been in power for 17 years, pushed through constitutional amendments that removed the president's two-term limit before calling elections two years ahead of schedule. Nazarbaev's party captured all seats in the country's legislature in the August 2007 vote.

Walker says the apparent link between energy and authoritarianism in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan is striking. "The downward turn is so comprehensive, this was something that really jumped out from the data and led us to believe that there is something to this idea that resource-based pathologies are emerging in these settings."

Freedom House also notes worrying "reform fatigue" in young democracies. Independent anticorruption groups, for instance, have come under attack in new EU states like Slovenia, Romania, and Latvia.

The report says Georgia's reform ambitions, too, came "under extreme duress" when thousands of protesters took to the streets in late 2007 to oppose President Mikheil Saakashvili -- the largest street protest since the Rose Revolution that swept him to power in 2003.

In response, the Georgian government violently dispersed the protesters, temporarily shut down an opposition television channel, and declared a state of emergency that restricted public gatherings and limited news broadcasts to state-controlled television.

"In Georgia last year we saw extraordinary stress put on the political system," Walker says. "And this was, I think, highlighted by the state of emergency that was called in November of last year. And this led to really one of the biggest challenges to a democratic aspirant in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union."

Walker says Georgia once was a country that seemed likely to become a liberal democracy. Now, he says, the country's future isn't so clear.

Freedom House however adds that the country's opposition has yet to "disprove the norm in the former Soviet Union" by offering a mature alternative to the current government.