Confronting Illiberalism: Nations in Transit Releases 2018 edition
Attacks on opposition parties, the press, and civil society organizations are becoming the norm in Central and Eastern Europe as the spread of illiberal politics undermines the foundations and prospects for democracy, according to Nations in Transit 2018, the 23rd edition of Freedom House’s annual report on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia.
“Illiberal politics are becoming the new normal in Europe,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Government-led smear campaigns against civil society groups, journalists, and the political opposition were pioneered in Russia and Central Asia, but they are increasingly common across the region. This is no longer a problem we can claim is limited to one or two countries. To protect democracy, leaders need to confront attacks on democratic principles, especially when those attacks are close to home.”
“What is happening in Central and Eastern Europe can’t be separated from what is happening in Europe as a whole,” Abramowitz said. “No one is shielded from the normalization of illiberal ideas.”
- In 2018, Nations in Transit registered the broadest score declines in the project’s 23-year history: 19 of the 29 countries assessed had declines in their overall Democracy Scores. For the second year in a row, there are more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies.
- Poland recorded the second-largest Democracy Score decline in the history of the report. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s revolutionary takeover of the judicial system, politicization of public media, smear campaigns against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedure also produced the two largest single-category score declines in Nations in Transit’s history, for National Democratic Governance and Judicial Framework and Independence. “The radical changes to the Polish judiciary remove any effective check on the actions of the majority party in parliament,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit. “What has happened in Poland in the last two years should serve as an alarm bell for anyone who believes that one-party rule could never return to Europe.” “The EU should stand up for its commitments to the rule of law by implementing Article 7 sanctions against Poland and Hungary,” Schenkkan said, referring to the EU’s power to suspend a member’s voting rights. “It should condition access to European funds on clear rule-of-law criteria. This is the only way to convince these countries, and EU candidate states, that the union is firmly rooted in democratic principles.”
- Hungary has registered the largest cumulative decline in Nations in Transit history. The country’s Democracy Score has been falling for 10 consecutive years, moving it from the status of a democratic leader at the time of EU accession in 2004 to the threshold of a “Transitional/Hybrid Regime” in 2018. “The Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán led the way for illiberal forces in Central Europe, showing that it was possible to capture a state within the EU through gerrymandering, procurement manipulation, and control of the media,” said Schenkkan. “The fact that Fidesz remains a member in good standing in the European People’s Party of the European Parliament shows how effective Orbán’s approach has been.”
- In Slovakia, the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak in February 2018 exposed allegations of ties between high-ranking government officials and organized crime. Under political pressure following the murder, Prime Minister Robert Fico has turned to the illiberal playbook, claiming that George Soros was engineering criticism against him. “Rather than addressing the implications of Ján Kuciak’s murder, Fico is trying to divide and distract Slovakia at all costs,” Schenkkan said.
- In Romania, a positive trend has come to an end with the new government’s relentless attempts to weaken the justice system, sideline the anticorruption agency, and essentially legalize corruption. Major protests prevented some of the worst proposed changes in 2017, but the conflict continues. “Romania’s politicians will face protests as long as they insist on trying to weaken anticorruption institutions,” said senior researcher Zselyke Csaky. “The fact that such protests are even necessary is a sign that the country has a long way to go in effectively combating corruption.”
- In Latvia, scandals in the banking sector in early 2018 underscored the threat of money laundering and corruption within the European Union, even in countries with relatively strong democratic institutions. “The EU’s integrated financial system cannot function if local authorities turn a blind eye to corruption and money laundering,” Schenkkan said. “As long as they do so, the union will only be as strong as its weakest link, and anyone from Russian oligarchs to North Korean arms smugglers will be able to use its system to launder ill-gotten gains.”
- Serbia’s score declined for the fourth straight year, threatening its status as a “Semi-Consolidated Democracy.” Although the EU in early 2018 named Serbia and Montenegro as “frontrunners” for accession, the consolidation of power under Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić continues. “Last year, Vučić ‘castled’ himself from the prime minister’s seat to the presidency, then handpicked a new prime minister with limited powers,” said Csaky. “Such maneuvers undermine constitutional order and the independence of national governing institutions.”
- Ukraine’s Democracy Score declined for the first time since the 2014 revolution. With the Russian-led conflict in the east grinding on, Ukraine’s politicians are taking advantage of patriotic sentiment to attack NGOs and journalists, accusing them of undermining the war effort. “Attacks on civil society and political opponents have sapped the momentum from the institutional reform process in Ukraine,” said Schenkkan. “Although decentralization reforms are continuing, other key priorities, including anticorruption efforts, have stalled. The window of opportunity has not closed in Ukraine, but it has shrunk. By accusing NGOs and journalists of antinational sentiment, politicians are attempting to exclude legitimate voices from public debate simply because they criticize the government.”
- The worst performer in the report is now Turkmenistan, which has the lowest possible score on six out of seven categories. After years of authoritarian mismanagement, flagrant corruption, and overspending on megaprojects, the country is in the throes of a full-blown economic crisis. Store shelves are empty, and citizens are unable to get cash from banks. “Turkmenistan is a warning about the perils of consolidated authoritarian rule,” Schenkkan said. “A system that puts all decisions in the hands of one person, and punishes the sharing of unbiased information, results in poor decision-making and an inability to self-correct. Turkmenistan cannot recover from this self-made economic disaster without a change to its system of governance.”
- The bright spots of the past year were Macedonia, Uzbekistan, and Estonia. A change of government in Macedonia in June brought a chance to reverse years of state capture and resolve long-standing disputes with neighbors that have impeded the country’s development. “Reversing the damage to Macedonia’s democracy would show that civic mobilization and international commitments can produce real breakthroughs,” said Csaky. “Macedonia deserves a credible shot at EU accession.”
- 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.
- Estonia earned the biggest improvement in this edition of the report, even though it was already the best performer. A surprisingly smooth first year in government for a longtime opposition party demonstrated the resilience and independence of national institutions. Estonia’s anticorruption mechanisms appear to be addressing the municipal corruption that has long affected its major cities. “At a time when most of the news for democracy seems bad, Estonia reminds us that liberal democracy can and does succeed,” Schenkkan said. “Even in a country with a history of foreign occupation and sensitive ethnic and regional differences, democratic national institutions can produce better governance for everyone.”
View the full report here: https://nationsintransit.org.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.