Press release April 20, 2022
NEW REPORT: Regional Autocrats Exploiting Instability, Expanding Power from Central Europe to Central Asia
Against the backdrop of war in Ukraine, the Nations in Transit 2022 report finds that autocrats are going on the offensive and gaining traction in a region once considered a beacon of hope for democratic progress.
Democracy is rapidly losing ground to authoritarianism in the region spanning from Central Europe to Central Asia, according to Nations in Transit 2022: From Democratic Decline to Authoritarian Aggression. Last year, for the first time in the 21st century, the prevailing government type in this region was what Freedom House calls the “hybrid regime,” which combines elements of democracy and autocracy. Since 2004, three previously authoritarian countries have made democratic strides and risen into the ranks of hybrid regimes: Moldova, Kosovo, and now Armenia. In the same period, however, four democracies have fallen into the gray zone of hybrid governance: Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has increasingly positioned the Kremlin as a backstop for like-minded autocracies in Europe and Eurasia, bolstering Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020, when massive public protests against his fraudulent reelection threatened his hold on power, and Kazakhstani president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during recent unrest stemming from public frustration with the government and economic inequality. Since February 24, Moscow has also been waging a brutal war of conquest in neighboring Ukraine; if the effort were to succeed, it would mark the first time that an authoritarian power has forcibly overthrown the freely elected government of another state in the region since at least the end of the Cold War.
Conditions have continued to deteriorate in other entrenched autocracies. Along with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the worst performers in the report are Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, where unabashed despots have stamped out dissent and torn down the pillars of an open society, including independent media and civic organizations.
“The liberal international order is only as strong as the democracies that defend it, and the road to authoritarian resurgence has been paved with democracies’ political complacency,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “While the unity that democracies have shown in response to Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine is truly remarkable, we must seize this moment of democratic awakening to counter the rise of authoritarianism not only in Europe and Eurasia, but around the globe. Freedom’s champions, from governments to citizens, must use all the legal, economic, and diplomatic tools available to deter authoritarian aggression and lay the foundations for a safer, freer, and more just and prosperous world.”
Democracy in the region has declined for 18 consecutive years, since 2004. Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, a brazen attempt to overthrow the freely elected government of another state, could accelerate the antidemocratic trend across Europe and Eurasia.
Among the 29 nations covered by the report, the predominant type of government is the “hybrid regime,” in which ostensibly democratic institutions belie undemocratic practices. For example, a country that holds regular, competitive elections may also lack checks and balances on the winners, suffer from a weak rule of law, or fail to protect the rights and liberties of all residents. Armenia has now joined this category, for a total of 11 hybrid regimes in the region, up from four in 2004.
Just six of the 29 Nations in Transit countries have kept the designation of “consolidated democracy,” down from eight in 2004. The six are Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. But even in these states, all of which are members of NATO and the European Union, the corrosive effects of illiberalism and corruption in 2021 led to score declines.
Slovenia experienced the largest one-year decline in Nations in Transit 2022. The government of Prime Minister Janez Janša has bashed the free press, undermined public trust in the judiciary, and sidelined the parliament over the past year.
There are no longer any countries in the methodological category of “semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes.” While Armenia, Kosovo, and Moldova have risen to become “hybrid regimes” since 2004, four countries—Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan—have become “consolidated authoritarian regimes” during the same period, joining Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan at the bottom of the report’s scale.
“Over the past 20 years, countries that once strove for democratic ideals have increasingly fallen under the sway of authoritarian strongmen, enticed by the promise of quick fixes to complex, systemic challenges,” said Mike Smeltzer, project director of Nations in Transit. “Once strongmen take power, they try to keep it at any cost, even going so far as to stamp out democracy in neighboring states. I’m heartened by the solidarity that so many democracies have shown with Ukraine, but it will take sustained, decisive, and unified effort to stem the broader authoritarian tide and help all of these once-promising countries return to a democratic path. I hope this tragic war will provide the jolt required to spur democracy’s advocates into action.”
To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Elizabeth Rosen at [email protected] or (202) 747-7009.
Nations in Transit 2022: From Democratic Decline to Authoritarian Aggression.
Democracy is rapidly losing ground to authoritarianism in the region spanning from Central Europe to Central Asia. Last year, for the first time in the 21st century, the prevailing government type in this region was what Freedom House calls the “hybrid regime,” which combines elements of democracy and autocracy. Since 2004, three previously authoritarian countries have made democratic strides and risen into the ranks of hybrid regimes: Moldova, Kosovo, and now Armenia. In the same period, however, four democracies have fallen into the gray zone of hybrid governance: Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.