Perspectives May 25, 2023
In Europe and Eurasia, the Democracy-Autocracy Gap is Widening
The type of regime controlling one’s country is increasingly a matter of life and death.
On February 21, 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin unleashed a tirade of falsehoods about Ukrainian history, culture, and sovereignty in a speech broadcast across Russia. Three days later, he launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, whose people have made clear time and again that they are committed to democratic values and intend to chart their own course in the world, beyond the shadow of the Kremlin.
Many hoped that the Ukrainians’ heroic defense against authoritarian aggression would galvanize democracy’s supporters throughout Europe and Eurasia. But the new spirit of urgency and solidarity that rose around Ukraine was insufficient, at least in the short term, to halt nearly two decades of democratic erosion in the region, according to the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report. Instead, Moscow’s devastating attack on Ukrainian democracy had disparate consequences for each country, deepening the gulf between free societies and entrenched autocracies.
An imperfect unity in the EU’s eastern half
The United States and the European Union (EU) were among Ukraine’s most ardent supporters during 2022. This was particularly true for most of the 11 EU member states that are included in the Nations in Transit report, which covers 29 countries stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia. Citizens and their elected leaders in Warsaw, Vilnius, and elsewhere stepped up to provide vital military and humanitarian aid, and opened their cities and towns to millions of Ukrainian refugees.
There were some signs of disunity in this group of EU members. Individual countries did not always make the connection between support for democracy in Ukraine and democratic reforms at home. Even Poland and Hungary, which have been partners in defying the EU’s democratic standards in recent years, parted ways on the issue of Ukraine. While Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party refused to reverse its political capture of the country’s judiciary or punish the corrupt dealings of affiliated elites, it did stand firm in its support for Ukraine’s defense. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán also continued to consolidate power, but he sat stubbornly on the geopolitical fence between Brussels and Moscow, hoping to profit from connections to both sides. These two countries have fallen the furthest in the Nations in Transit scoring system over the last decade, and Hungary was second only to Russia in its score declines for 2022.
On average, however, the 11 EU member states in the report demonstrated their relatively strong democratic credentials, coming close to halting a long trend in which their score declines outpaced improvements. For all the concerns about citizens’ disenchantment with democratic governance, prodemocracy coalitions defeated populist and illiberal electoral candidates in Slovenia in 2022 and Czechia in 2023.
Democratic churn on the EU’s periphery
The Kremlin’s war of conquest has shattered its failing attempts to build a regional bloc that could rival the EU, leaving Brussels as the only option for countries in Europe and Eurasia that seek closer cooperation without sacrificing security, prosperity, or basic sovereignty. The EU rose to the occasion in 2022 by granting candidate status to three more countries—Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina—and receiving an application for candidacy from Kosovo.
Among the 10 non-EU countries that are rated as Hybrid Regimes in Nations in Transit, there were more improvements than declines in democracy scores this year. Yet the picture for democracy is complicated in this large and institutionally diverse group of countries.
Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia have steadily improved their democratic performance in recent years, driven forward by civic activism and consequential elections. Armenia was the only country with improvements on more than one indicator for 2022, though it has still not applied to join the EU. Ukraine and Moldova demonstrated their governance credentials amid crisis, but in Georgia, political polarization seeped into every public institution, undermined media independence, and darkened the country’s prospects for EU candidacy.
In the Western Balkans, modest improvements in Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia were balanced by dysfunction-driven declines in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The democracy score for Serbia, where public support for EU membership is the lowest in the subregion, remained unchanged. Citizens across the Western Balkans have long felt abandoned by domestic elites who resist democratic reforms, and by international elites who lack the resolve to follow through on stalled accession processes or even manage local frictions, like flareups between Kosovo and Serbia or threats of secession by Bosnian Serb leaders. Both national and EU leaders will have to do better if they are to keep up with the growing challenge of integration.
Sinking to new depths of authoritarian violence
Six out of eight countries in the report’s Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes category experienced declines in their democracy scores this year, and none earned improvements. Unrestrained state violence has become a defining characteristic of such regimes, illustrated most dramatically by the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine and its simultaneous suppression of domestic dissent. In Belarus, which served as a launchpad for the February invasion, Russian-backed president Alyaksandr Lukashenka also cracked down on dissidents, even seizing citizens' donations to the prodemocracy movement and diverting them to state-owned charities.
The Russian regime was not the only one in the region to exhibit military aggression. President Ilham Aliyev’s government in Azerbaijan has continued to pursue its territorial ambitions through the use of force since a major conflict in 2020. It launched incursions into Armenia, tightened its cordon around Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened residents’ freedoms and physical security during 2022.
In Central Asia, authoritarian states have perpetuated a vicious circle of power concentration, public frustration, and violent repression. For example, rising gas prices in Kazakhstan triggered antigovernment protests, with demonstrators using the opportunity to air long-standing grievances, and they were met with deadly force. The leadership promised a more democratic future in the aftermath of the unrest, but subsequent elections showed no meaningful improvements. In April 2023, new demonstrations erupted over unemployment, only to be met again with repression and arrests. Similar patterns of protest, repression, and superficial reforms were observed in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during 2022.
No solidarity or security without democracy
While the atrocities committed by the Russian military in Ukraine may have dispelled years of complacency among democracies, previous moments of alarm and outrage have proven ephemeral, and there is no guarantee that the current awakening will last.
Free governments, along with their partners in business and civil society, must lay the groundwork for an enduring campaign of democratization at home and abroad. They must recognize that there can be no strong alliances without shared democratic principles, and no true security so long as unreformed authoritarian states are arming themselves just across the border. Above all, they should not forget those living under repressive regimes who are struggling to exercise their fundamental freedoms and deserve the support of the democratic world.
Explore Nations in Transit 2023
In 2023, Democracy Scores declined in 11 out of the 29 countries in the report, and 7 countries earned improvements. Yet civic activists and democratic leaders continued to strive for better governance across the diverse region. The 2023 edition of Nations in Transit is now live.