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'Dramatic Change' As Democracy Undermined Across Europe, Eurasia, Freedom House Finds

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Contempt shown by governments for independent institutions and civil society, attacks on the political opposition and independent media, as well as an incessant push to blend the ruling party with the state, are becoming the new normal in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia, U.S.-based democracy monitor Freedom House warns in its latest report.

The spread of illiberal politics across the region in countries such as Hungary and Poland has been eroding the region’s foundations and prospects for democracy, the group says in its latest annual Nations In Transit report, titled Confronting Illiberalism.

"This is something that, of course, we've been remarking on for a very long time in places like Russia or Central Asia or Belarus, but increasingly, we see this now in Central Europe, in countries like Hungary and Poland. And we see it starting to have an effect at the level of institutions. So, very dramatic changes, especially in Poland," Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations In Transit for Freedom House, told RFE/RL.

The report said 19 out of the 29 nations gauged got lower democracy scores, the sharpest decline in the project’s 23-year history, while for the second year in a row the number of consolidated authoritarian regimes was higher than that of consolidated democracies.

Turkmenistan is singled out as the region’s worst performer from what the report calls “Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies” -- a group that also includes Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Decades of “authoritarian mismanagement, flagrant corruption, and overspending on megaprojects” have thrown Turkmenistan into a full-blown economic crisis, the report says.

In Russia, the report says, President Vladimir Putin won reelection last month in a poll that lacked real competition. Putin’s only credible rival, anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, it says, was banned from running due to a conviction on trumped-up corruption charges.

But because of a lack of structural reforms and international sanctions for its annexing of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia is facing “economic decay,” the report says.

Forced to share a smaller pie, the ruling elites have begun to turn on one another, it says, giving the example of the conflict between Igor Sechin, the head of state oil company Rosneft, and former Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, which ended with the former entrapping his adversary in a bribery scheme which the report says was a “violation of the thieves’ code that had prevailed inside the regime’s top echelons.”

Former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev in court in Moscow in December
Former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev in court in Moscow in December

Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan present the region’s highest risk of sliding into authoritarianism, the report says.

“While the window for fundamental reforms may not have closed in Ukraine,” the report says, political resistance to anticorruption reforms, attacks on civil society, and the media have seen Ukraine’s democracy score declining for the first time since 2014.

"It was a relatively small decline, but it was meaningful, and the main cause of the decline is very aggressive pressure on the civil society and on the independent media from government, from leading politicians. It's becoming unfortunately quite normal and standard in Ukraine to accuse civil society actors, NGOs, to accuse media of being antinational and unpatriotic," Schenkkan told RFE/RL.

In the other four countries, informal political and business leaders who control the system from the outside or from the fringes of accountable institutions “increasingly dominate their underdeveloped political systems,” he said.

However, the democratic regress is most striking in two countries that were most adept at parting with totalitarian regimes in the 1980s -- Poland and Hungary, the report says. It singles out the “bulldozing of the judiciary in Poland” and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s “return to the political practices of goulash communism,” characterized by the absence of independent institutions and the fusion between ruling party and state.

It also mentions Romania’s regress, where the new government reversed a positive trend, with an all-out assault against the judiciary in general and against the country’s anticorruption agency in particular. It notes that huge public protests prevented some of the most serious reversals in 2017 but that the government continues its push to “essentially legalize corruption.”

In the Balkans, Serbia’s standing declined for the fourth year in a row, threatening its status as a “semiconsolidated democracy.” Although Serbia was named earlier this year by the EU as a front-runner for accession together with Montenegro, “the consolidation of power under Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic continues,” the report says.

Positive developments of the past year have been taking place in Macedonia and Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan continued “the modest thaw that began with the death of President Islam Karimov in August 2016, making small but noticeable improvements in the atmosphere for civil society and the media,” the report said.

Meanwhile, in Macedonia, “a new government was able to be formed,” Schenkkan told RFE/RL.

“The new government has embarked on a very ambitious reconciliation process with neighbors Bulgaria and Greece with the goal of unlocking the EU accession perspective, then NATO membership. In addition, and most importantly, domestically, the government has begun to roll back the state capture that had prevailed under the previous government," Schenkkan said.