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Freedom House: Democracy Suffers Dark Year in Former Communist States


Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new Freedom House study finds widespread declines in democracy from Central Europe to Eurasia, with Russia ranked as a consolidated authoritarian regime for the first time.

Nations in Transit indicates that almost two thirds or 18 of the 29 former communist European and Eurasian countries covered in the study experienced setbacks in democratic reform in 2008, the calendar year examined. The most pronounced declines occurred as governments imposed restrictions on civil society, turned to questionable governance practices and weakened judicial frameworks and independence. The study also registered more losses than gains in the areas of electoral process, independent media, local democratic governance and corruption.

"2008 was a dark year for democracy in the region, in particular in the former Soviet states," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, Freedom House Europe director. "With economic conditions worsening, the region is likely to see authoritarians resort to greater repression, rather than adopt needed reforms."

Nations in Transit pointed to several events that eroded democracy in Russia in 2008, including the uncompetitive presidential election that saw Vladimir Putin transfer power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. The survey also expressed concern about Russia’s inability to tackle corruption in the absence of an independent judiciary, free press and active civil society.

However, Russia was not alone in its democratic decline. Backsliding also occurred in 7 out of 10 new member states of the European Union, as well as in the so-called "color revolution" countries of Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia. Like Russia, Kyrgyzstan also joined the ranks of the region’s consolidated authoritarian regimes.

"What these trends show is that democracy is a long-term process that requires a concerted reform effort," said Shkolnikov. "Electoral breakthroughs and even entrance in the EU should not be mistaken for an end goal in achieving democracy."

Kosovo, the region’s newest independent state, provided a rare bright spot in the study. The state showed improvement in both local and national democratic governance as the United Nations Mission in Kosovo began to hand over these functions to domestic institutions.

Some of the study’s main findings include:

Civil Society Weakens The Non-Baltic former Soviet states saw declines in civil society scores for the fifth time in six years, with authorities using restrictive legislation to weaken independent activism. Extreme nationalist groups became more prominent in some EU member states where some regulations for nongovernmental organizations became more onerous.

Authoritarianism Grows: Kyrgyzstan and Russia became consolidated authoritarian regimes for the first time since the study’s inception in 1995, joining six other former Soviet republics: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Color Revolutions Falter: The democratic promise of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 “Tulip Revolution,” Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” and Ukraine’s 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution” remains unfulfilled. Democracy scores in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia dropped to prerevolutionary levels.

International Institutions Undermined A number of regional organizations tasked with election monitoring issued positive statements about elections in 2008 that were clearly flawed, such as those in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Similarly, Russia remains the only Council of Europe member to refuse to ratify Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights.


Regional findings include:

Non-Baltic Former Soviet States Authoritarianism in the non-Baltic former Soviet states continued to solidify. The democratic divide widened between these states and the rest of the Nations in Transit countries in 2008, with flawed elections, increased suppression of independent voices and a war between Russia and Georgia. Petro-state Azerbaijan recorded the most significant declines.

New EU Member States: Democracy scores declined in seven out of 10 of these countries, as they increasingly turned to questionable governance practices. Corruption scores fell in four states, with only Poland seeing improvement in this area. Bulgaria fell from the ranks of consolidated democracies to a semi-consolidated democracy.

Balkan Countries Most of Southeastern Europe’s democracy scores held steady in 2008, with the only declines registered in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Attacks on journalists hurt media independence in Croatia, while ethic divisions remained problematic in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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