Democratic Accountability Falls in Former Soviet Union as Energy Prices Rise

Washington, D.C.

Ballooning oil and gas wealth is contributing to an accelerated process of democratic decline in the leading energy rich states of the former Soviet Union according to Nations in Transit 2008, a new study released today by Freedom House.  The study finds a sharp and systematic erosion of accountability and transparency in Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, affecting a range of sectors, such as civil society, electoral process, and media and judicial independence.

Nations in Transit examines democratic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Since 1999, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have moved backward on every Nations in Transit indicator, with the exception of Russia’s still very low score on corruption, which is slightly better now than a decade ago.

“The resource curse appears to be rearing its head in the former Soviet Union,” said Freedom House director of studies Christopher Walker. “As oil profits roll in, authoritarian governments are increasingly clamping down on critical institutions, reducing already weak accountability and transparency.”

The report does not suggest that energy resources transformed these countries into authoritarian systems. Instead, the new wealth is acting as an “authoritarian propellant,” allowing dominant power holders to further muzzle independent voices and assert control over crucial institutions.

This regional group of authoritarian nations, led by Russia, represents part of a global trend in which oil-rich countries are becoming increasingly antidemocratic and vocal. The study’s release comes as European Union and Russia leaders prepare for a summit June 26-27 in Western Siberia.
“EU decision makers tasked with constructing a sound relationship with the Russian government should be seriously concerned about Russia’s trajectory,” said Jeannette Goehring, managing editor of Nations in Transit. 

The new report examines events during 2007. The full report, its methodology and an explanatory essay are available online. Other key findings include:

  • Assault on Rules-Based Institutions: Authoritarian governments within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe successfully delivered that body’s chairmanship to Kazakhstan, the first nondemocratic country to head the OSCE (Kazakhstan will serve its one-year term in 2010). A parallel initiative sought to gut the capacity of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, including its well-regarded election-monitoring function.
  • Russia: Russia’s decline continued in 2007, with steps backward in electoral process, civil society and national governance. Russia’s orchestrated leadership succession process suggests that critical institutions now serve principally as instruments for Russia’s incumbent authorities. The confluence of official state power with the commanding heights of the economy—along with the security services—has forged a deeply entrenched “Iron Triangle” of interests in Russia.
  • Georgia’s Reform Knocked Off Course: Georgia’s reform ambitions came under extreme duress in 2007 when Georgian authorities violently dispersed anti-government demonstrators, closed an opposition television station and declared a state of emergency on November 7. The upheaval revealed deeper fissures in the Georgian political landscape that have no easy solutions.

Regional Developments:

  • The Balkans: The Balkans have incrementally advanced democratic reforms in recent years. The southern Balkans represent the most significant reform challenge with Kosovo performing well below the regional average on every NIT indicator. Kosovo’s government must address the country’s weak judiciary, endemic corruption and tensions with its Serb minority.
  • Reform Fatigue in New EU States: Central and Southeastern Europe, along with the Baltic countries, are pressing forward with their reform agendas. However, some political elites in new EU member have pursued private interests rather than those that serve the public good alienating many ordinary citizens. News media in the new democracies are under greater pressure from governmental and other powerful elites.
  • Deepening Authoritarianism in the Former Soviet Union: Democratic accountability is an ever-scarcer commodity in these countries, whose regimes put a premium on their own security and use increasingly coercive means to govern. Ukraine represents the only exception, with authoritarian control giving way to politics that are messy but vibrant and competitive.

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