Freedom House Report: Authoritarian Regimes in Eurasia Lashing Out to Resist Change | Freedom House

Freedom House Report: Authoritarian Regimes in Eurasia Lashing Out to Resist Change

Washington

Photo Credit: Aziz Karimov

June 18, 2013 - Mounting domestic pressure for democratic change in Eurasia was met with increasingly repressive policies by the region’s autocratic governments in 2012, according to the newly released edition of Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual analysis of democratic development from Central Europe to Central Asia. The year’s events show that the entrenchment of authoritarian rule has come at the cost of increased corruption, censorship of the media, suppression of civil society, and in some cases violence against the political opposition.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency despite months of protests was accompanied by a sharp rise in policies designed to muzzle political opposition and civil society activism. Putin has utilized his control over the legislature, the media, and the judiciary to carry out these troubling initiatives. The new restrictions have sought not merely to obstruct Russian civil society, but to eliminate groups that deal with any political or public policy matter.

“This is the worst repression Russians have suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “Not only does this have a devastating impact on the fundamental freedoms of Russians and the country’s prospects for democracy, but given Russia’s influence in the region, it emboldens other autocrats to clamp down further on their citizens.”

Several of Russia’s neighbors saw increasing pressure on political opposition and civil society. Five of the 12 countries in the Eurasia region suffered score declines on Nations in Transit’s civil society indicator, including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Belarus, which stepped up their persecution of perceived enemies through legal and extralegal means.

In Central Europe, most states were able to respond to the mounting public backlash against unpopular austerity measures without straying from core democratic norms. However, in Romania, a new center-left government treated public dissatisfaction with President Traian Băsescu and the outgoing center-right government as a mandate to entrench its own rule and browbeat critical media outlets. Hungary, which showed dramatic decline in last year’s report, slipped further as the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continued to defend its controversial reorganization and restaffing of the country’s media, data protection, and judicial oversight bodies, while also pursuing legislation to regulate additional dimensions of political and social activity.

The goal of European Union (EU) accession has motivated some important reforms in the Balkans, but corruption still appears to be deepening despite pressures from the EU and international lending institutions to strengthen judicial independence and produce verdicts in high-profile cases. Most notably, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, where judicial institutions are subject to political interference and journalists face intimidation and attacks, all earned downgrades on the corruption indicator.

“In these countries, the implementation of reforms essential to the rule of law—particularly those underpinning the independence of the judiciary—has been incomplete, perfunctory, and undermined by a lack of political will,” said Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, project director for Nations in Transit.

Notable Trends:

  • Assault on Civil Society: Mass protests in 2011 led to the adoption of legislation restricting public assembly, religious activity, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in an effort to prevent further demonstrations in 2012. Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan all received downgrades in the civil society category as a result. 
  • Electoral Gains in Georgia and Armenia, Abuses in Russia and Ukraine: Georgia and Armenia made strides toward more competitive and fair elections as a result of new electoral laws that emphasized equal access to campaign resources and media coverage. Though there was some abuse of administrative resources and polling-day violations persisted, competitiveness improved and both votes yielded more representative legislatures. In contrast to these improvements, Ukraine’s downward spiral continued as parliamentary elections were marred by political prosecutions, legal manipulations, large-scale abuse of administrative resources, opaque campaign finances, and bribery. In Russia, following a deeply flawed election that was condemned by international monitors, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency and is now scheduled to be in office until 2018.
  • Signs of Strain in Central Europe: Pressure to implement harsh austerity measures and public frustration with corruption contributed to frequent government changes in the new EU member states. Romania’s new government took rapid steps to consolidate its power over state institutions, triggering a political crisis that adversely affected the country’s media environment. Media freedom in Bulgaria and Poland also showed some deterioration, while Slovakia experienced a decline on judicial independence and corruption.
  • Persistent Corruption in the Balkans: Critical reforms stalled in all Balkan states in 2012 as a result of corruption, despite pressing EU deadlines for Croatia and Serbia. Albania’s ratings continued to weaken as Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party consolidated their power over state institutions and the pliant judicial system issued acquittals in corruption cases against high-ranking officials. Meanwhile, authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina proved unable or unwilling to respond to widespread graft among leading politicians.

The release of findings from Nations in Transit 2013 will be accompanied by roundtable and panel events on June 18 and 19, at the Legatum Institute in London and the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, respectively. More information on these events can be found here and here.

A booklet with time-series data on all 29 countries covered by the report and an overview essay describing the year’s trends can be found here, along with an interactive map. A Russian-language version of the essay is available here.

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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.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhouse). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.