Democracy Divide in Eastern Europe Ten Years After Soviet Collapse | Freedom House

Democracy Divide in Eastern Europe Ten Years After Soviet Collapse

New York

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the military coup that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, Freedom House is releasing a major comparative study that documents striking regional differences in the consolidation of democracy in post-Communist Eastern Europe.

The report, Nations in Transit 2001, suggests a worrisome drift toward authoritarianism in the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union and points to a growing divide that threatens a new demarcation line between Europe and Eurasia.

Nations in Transit 2001, the fifth in a series, is the only comprehensive, comparative, and multidimensional study of reform in former Communist states. The 434-page report, which covers events during the period July 1, 1999, through October 31, 2000, contains 3 overview essays by seasoned observers of the region, 13 comparative tables and charts, and 27 in-depth studies of post-Communist countries. It tracks the evolution of these countries by examining reform progress in key areas such as democratic elections, decentralized governance, the rule of law, civil society, independent media, and market economics. The report is a collaborative effort of more than 40 scholars and analysts from think tanks, universities, and human rights organizations in Europe, Eurasia, the United States, and Canada.

The study finds that of the 12 non-Baltic, former Soviet republics none is a consolidated democracy, and only Georgia and Tajikistan have registered significant progress since the survey was launched in 1995. Five of the 12 states-Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic-have regressed significantly in their democratization indicators over the last five years. The remaining five-Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan-have registered something akin to stasis.

According to the study, the Russian Federation, the largest Soviet successor nation:

[M]ay be described as an electoral democracy in which the formal political rights of the citizenry . . . have been secured but in which civil rights have been less well protected. Elections take place at regular intervals and generally are regarded as free and fair, but elite manipulation and irregularities abound. The rule of law remains weak. Democratic institutions are underdeveloped. The accountability of state officials to the citizens is minimal. And the legislature and the judiciary have little control over the executive. . .

Politics in Russia is highly personalized, and political parties are poorly developed, leader-centric affairs. The role of legislative powers and parties is declining, and Russia's opposition is close to its demise. Society is more passive in the political sphere, and survival-more than any other factor-promotes public activism. Corruption is rife, and the concept of conflict of interest is not widely assimilated. . .

[T]he period under review witnessed a sharp turn in the direction of presidential power and authoritarian rule.

Despite the bleak landscape, Nations in Transit 2001 shows that the collapse of strong-man regimes in Croatia and Yugoslavia during the period covered by the report offers hope that similar systems in the former Soviet Union can get on the path of dramatic political and economic change. It also suggests that many of the post-Communist authoritarian regimes have internal forces that can be mobilized to promote much-needed political openings.

Dramatic regional differences noted.

In an accompanying essay, Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky notes that nearly every non-Baltic, former Soviet state experienced some degree of backsliding in their democratization indicators during the period covered by the report. Looking at year-to-year trends in the Nations in Transit ratings, Karatnycky also points out the following striking regional differences: 

  • Ten of the 15 Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries covered by the report are now consolidated democracies; no CEE country is an autocracy. However, none of the 12 non-Baltic, former Soviet Republics is a consolidated democracy.
  • The last major elections in all 15 CEE states were free and fair. By contrast, only four of the non-Baltic, former Soviet states-Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova-passed this minimal standard of democratic electoral procedure.
  • Eight CEE states are considered consolidated market economies. In sharp contrast, not a single non-Baltic, post-Soviet state has made it into this category.

The basis for dramatic regional differences.

The findings of Nations in Transit 2001 suggest four principal reasons for the differing trajectories. These are:

  • Differences in historical legacies and paths to post-Communism. The CEE countries experienced shorter periods under Marxist-Leninist socialism than the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union. Likewise, the collapse of communism in the Baltic states and the rest of CEE was in large measure the product of collective, nonviolent civic action by non-Communists and anti-Communists. In the former Soviet Union, however, civic activists often cooperated with reform-minded Communists in independence movements. In other cases, the main forces pressing for independence in the Soviet republics were the Communist nomenklatura themselves who saw independence as a means to direct power.
  • Development of different state systems. Most of the non-Baltic, former Soviet states are, in effect, presidential systems in which most power is concentrated in the hands of the chief executive. This factor appears to be inimical to successful democratization. By contrast, none of the CEE countries has this de jure or de facto concentration of executive power.
  • Substantial variations in the patterns of corruption and cronyism. As journalist Stephen Handelman notes in his Nations in Transit essay "Thieves in Power," corruption affects all post-Communist states. However, the degree of corruption is worse in the non-Baltic, former Soviet states and appears to be directly related to the nature of their economic systems. That is, in most of these states, success in economic life derives from one's access to patrons and protectors within the state.
  • Considerable disparities in the development of civil society, political parties, and independent media. In many of the post-Soviet states, a patrimonial economic system significantly influences the environment for political parties, civic groups, and the media. The new rich rarely extend their support to civic groups and political parties that challenge entrenched power. Likewise, private sector economic investment in the media often comes with significant pressure on professional journalists to shape their reporting according to an owner's direct interests.

Other report highlights.

  • Croatia and Bulgaria showed significant reform momentum during the period covered by the report and, for the first time, entered the ranks of the consolidated democracies.
  • Slovakia, which entered the ranks of the consolidated democracies in the 1999-2000 edition of Nations in Transit, stayed firmly on the path of reform.
  • The transitional states of Albania, Tajikistan, and Yugoslavia all showed significant improvements in their democratic performance.
  • The Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, and Russia experienced significant negative momentum in their democratization indicators.

Research for Nations in Transit 2001 was undertaken by an international group of specialists on the former Communist world and coordinated by Freedom House staff. The study was made possible by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Open Society Institute.

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