Essay: Nations in Transit 2006: Shifting Influences and Challenges | Freedom House

Essay: Nations in Transit 2006: Shifting Influences and Challenges

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Jeannette Goehring and Kristie D. Evenson

Nations in Transit 2006 marks the 10th edition of Freedom House's comprehensive, comparative study of post-Communist transitions from Central Europe to Eurasia. Focused on 29 countries and administrative areas, Nations in Transit 2006 covers a 12-month period, from January 1 to December 31, 2005, and provides comparative ratings and in-depth analysis of electoral process, civil society, independent media, national and local governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption.

The report evaluates democratic performance in a wide range of states, encompassing the democracies of the new European Union (EU) member states to Central Asian authoritarian regimes. The 2006 report comes at a time when efforts to support democratization efforts in some of these regions are particularly challenging. Optimism over the color revolutions in Eurasia has been partially tempered by other Eurasia states' increasingly coordinated and energy-financed attempts at consolidating authoritarian rule. Closer to Europe, efforts to consolidate democratic gains in the Balkan region made progress but continued to be offset by uncertainties over the status of Kosovo and state-building challenges for most of the Balkan countries to attain membership in an increasingly reluctant EU. And even in the new member states of the EU, democratic consolidation throughout the past year has been hampered by persistent corruption concerns.

Sobering Year for Democracy Advances

Unlike the last two years, which saw clear examples of significant democratic advancement in the Nations in Transit (NIT) region, 2005 experienced few dramatic gains in democratic standards in Central Europe and Eurasia; overall, in fact, improvements only slightly outpaced setbacks in ratings in Nations in Transit 2006. This year's study shows 13 progressions, 12 regressions, and 4 countries in which no net change was registered from the previous year. Where progress was noted, it was modest and found mostly in middle performers. Two notable positive exceptions were Albania and Bulgaria. Albania improved in six out of seven NIT ratings categories, while Bulgaria improved in five out of seven. On the opposite side of the index, Uzbekistan showed the most dramatic decrease in democratic standards, declining in six out of seven NIT ratings categories.

While non-Baltic former Soviet states demonstrated overall decline and EU countries demonstrated general constancy, the countries of the Balkans on average continued their upward trend. This modest progress was encouraging despite the difficult transition challenges that continue to confront the region. This is particularly true for those of the former Yugoslavia, where the legacies of conflict and fundamental state-building processes that are under way remain partially dependent on the EU's willingness to continue aggressive preaccession and accession processes.

No dramatic democratic breakthroughs occurred in 2005, and although still early, the immediate exuberance associated with recent significant transitions has waned considerably as the enormity of the reform challenge has set in. Ukraine showed the greatest overall democracy score progress in 2005, most notably in independent media, yet throughout 2005 the reform agenda showed signs of losing consensus. Despite significant steps in Ukraine and smaller steps in Georgia, the reform implementation is still in its early stages. For example, the government in Georgia two years after the Rose Revolution is still struggling to find a proper democratic balance of power. In Bishkek, massive political upheaval occurred in March, resulting in a change of presidential leadership. Yet by the end of 2005, Kyrgyzstan lacked notable concrete reforms. Civil society and media experienced relative freedom after March, yet few institutional guarantees for this freedom were put in place during the year. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan remains a fragile state whose capacity to advance meaningful reforms is an open question.

In established autocracies such as Belarus and Azerbaijan, regimes took even more vigorous steps to tighten their grip. This repressive trend was particularly prevalent in the Eurasia region as authoritarian countries took comprehensive steps to ensure regime security. One year after the government's violent crackdown at Andijan, the opportunities for democratic progress in Uzbekistan appear increasingly remote. This trend of consolidating power has been heightened by the growing nondemocratic influence of other major states like Russia, creating a spillover effect in the region.

This spillover was felt most directly in the civil society sector during 2005. Almost all of the countries with a downturn in the civil society indicator in 2005 were from the Eurasia region. Although the most widely publicized restrictions on civil society were in Russia, this edition notes serious setbacks also in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Authorities in these states reacted to the color revolutions of the past two years by placing new restrictions on civil society, with particular scrutiny on those organizations receiving international funding in the democracy and governance field.

For example, weeks after the March events in Kyrgyzstan, as Nations in Transit analyst Payam Foroughi puts it: "Tajikistan's Ministry of the Interior...ordered financial audits of various domestic groups and called for all international organizations and foreign embassies to inform the ministry in advance of meetings and topics of discussion with domestic NGOs, political parties, and local journalists." In Kazakhstan, the Nazarbaev regime tightened governmental control over civil society through laws, formal and informal pressure, and increased funding by the state or agencies controlled by the state, which NIT analyst Bhavna Dave identifies as "efforts to shape the civil sector through financial aid and support to NGOs engaged in social and infrastructure development, as well as to those loyal to the government."

The Influence of Energy Resources

The historically high energy revenues many of the Eurasian states are receiving facilitate the movement toward authoritarianism. Highlighting the phenomenon of energy rich and democracy poor, the study documented a marked decline in the overall democracy scores in the key energy supplier states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. The 2005 drop falls in line with a multiyear trend of worsening democracy scores in these countries.

At least in the short term, the high energy revenues have been a disincentive for governments to create the long-term independent and accountable institutions normally associated with economic development. The revenues also have allowed governments to generally improve basic social expenditures at the expense of democratic institution building and basic civil and political rights. Noting the oil revenue effect on Azerbaijan, NIT analyst Kaan Nazli remarked: "President Aliyev continued to enjoy overwhelming authority in Azerbaijan's government system in 2005 and was able to maintain political and economic stability thanks to a high level of continued economic growth."

As energy resources in these states prove increasingly important strategically for Europe and the United States, the accompanying decline in democratic performance suggests uncertainty ahead for both energy providers and consumers. All four of the previously mentioned countries witnessed a downturn in democracy standards owing to weak institutions, deteriorating governance standards, worsening media and judicial freedom, and rising corruption.

At the same time, opportunities for corruption have increased with the state elite's steady reestablishment of control over the energy industries. And despite the establishment of special fund mechanisms to save and allocate energy revenues for long-term economic development, oil nationalism has diminished most oversight mechanisms that could provide a check on rent-seeking activities. For example, advancing his already entrenched authoritarian powers, Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov assumed direct control over the country's oil and gas resources by the end of 2005; in the same year, he closed most hospitals across the country, claiming financial constraints while international investigations pointed to significant funds present in major European banks.

Corruption as an Enduring Challenge

Issues of corruption remain a common challenge throughout the NIT region. Even in the best-performing states in the study, the corruption indicator lags behind other areas of performance. In fact, the collective democracy score for new EU members has dropped slightly owing to decreasing performance on the corruption indicator. The eight countries that joined the EU on May 1, 2004, remain the highest-ranking in the study but consistently score lower on the corruption indicator than in any of the other six ratings indicator categories.

Of the nine consolidated democracies listed in the 2006 edition, the corruption rating improved for only two (Bulgaria, Latvia), whereas it worsened for four (Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia). Whether these low scores indicate an enduring characteristic of political and economic transition or reflect the struggles that most consolidating and consolidated democracies face is an area of research that merits more careful examination. In Lithuania, the corruption indicator continued its multiyear trend of being at least a full point (or more) worse than all other indicators and decreased even more in 2005. Even as other high-level scandals became known and dealt with during 2005 in Lithuania, there was an increase in unofficial payments related to business regulations. Similarly, in Poland the corruption indicator has worsened since 2002; in 2005, more cases became known in new spheres, and effective countermeasures are lacking. And at the top of the NIT index, Slovenia's corruption indicator edged downward, owing in part to the country's decision to place the competences of the (previously independent) Slovene Commission for the Prevention of Corruption under parliamentary oversight.

State Building and Democratization

Another challenge that should be highlighted is the dual difficulty of "state building" and democratization. Whether it is through violent conflict or peaceful means, almost half of the NIT countries covered continue to grapple with building basic structures and consensus about belonging together in a state. A state must be able to have in place and control basic institutions in order to engage in processes of democratization. Across the NIT region, reform processes remain dependent on the ability of the state and its people to agree on and build up basic functions. During 2005, this challenge was especially apparent in the Balkans and the Caucasus region.

As this edition goes to print, citizens of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro have decided on their Balkan version of a "velvet divorce" toward building separate states. This is good news for the reformers in the two republics who have been repeatedly blocked by the larger issues of the dysfunctional State Union; or, as NIT analyst Florian Bieber explains, in 2005 Serbia was still unable to put together a new (republic-level) Constitution to update the 1990 Serbian Constitution created under Milosevic. This was due partly to the disinterest of either republic to sort through State Union competences. Overall in 2005, democratic performance in both Serbia and Montenegro demonstrated only one rating improvement: Serbia made progress in designing a legal framework to better fight corruption. Yet independence does not necessarily suggest an easy road for either republic to enact necessary democratic reforms. NIT's assessment on both republics noted decreasing media and civil society space to support government reforms.

Kosovo illustrates the competing challenges of building the institutions of a state while being under international administration and having an unresolved status. Unclear levels of responsibility, competency, and accountability have taken their toll on the population's willingness to support acceptance of a step-by-step reform process. This is due partly to competency, for example, as described by NIT analyst Bashkim Rrahmani: "Seventy laws were approved by the Parliament in 2005, though the body is (still) not effective in implementing legislation." As well, basic monitoring mechanisms remained weak, with the third sector demonstrating less willingness to criticize government performance owing to status talk considerations. Resolution of Kosovo's status does not imply dramatic gains in democracy. The institutional weakness described in NIT will require substantial technical improvements and political will on the domestic level to reach EU reform standards.

In the Caucasus, the frozen conflicts of the region continue to cast a shadow over other reform efforts. For example, in states like Georgia where the apparent goodwill of the government for the reform process is in place, the government still becomes distracted by periodic upsurges in tension with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where wars for secession from 1991 to 1993 brought some 15 percent of the country's territory under the control of unrecognized governments. This has affected the government's ability to implement its ambitious yet fragile reform strategy in such areas as minority integration and larger judicial reform. As described by NIT analyst Ghia Nodia: "...these zones of so-called frozen conflict have been major impediments to Georgia's development: They contain threats of renewed violence and undermine Georgia's chances for political and economic stabilization." The frozen conflicts also have provided a convenient method of constricting the transparency of the security-related functions of the government, including civilian oversight of the military and security services.

Encouraging and Expecting Reform

The NIT region remains a zone of contrasting democracy trends: EU states, although still grappling with enduring legacies like corruption, are generally on course; the Balkan region continues its slow progress toward institutionalized democracies and Euro-Atlantic integration; and several states on the edge of Europe like Moldova and Georgia struggle to put in place the basic foundations for democratic development even while other former Soviet republics continue their consolidation of authoritarian rather than democratic practices.

If we apply the study findings to policy considerations, the expectations of new EU member states are clear as they focus on reaching the next hurdle of EU integration, through being accepted into the Schengen zone and adopting use of the euro as currency. However, expectations for the rest of the region require clear, consistent, and coordinated efforts by the international community. Any engagement with these countries must continue to expect reform and emphasize human rights and democracy standards as outlined in already existing agreements and relationships (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, UN Charter, Council of Europe, EU Neighborhood partnership agreements, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and so forth). And any new agreements, like a European Country Action Plan or a strategic European or U.S. bilateral treaty, should prioritize and include strong conditionality clauses for fulfillment of key human rights and democracy governance criteria.

Carrots and sticks still work, but they must be consistent and targeted in a way that support the ideas of the democracy advocates within these states as well as hold state powers to the democratic principles to which they formally ascribe.

Nations in Transit 2006: Ratings and Scores

Produced annually, Nations in Transit provides ratings that serve as signposts of democratic advancements and setbacks in the 29 countries and administrative areas under study. Although the ratings for electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption are not absolute indicators of conditions in a given country, they provide valuable assistance in making general assessments of the levels of democracy or authoritarianism within a country or administrative area. They also facilitate comparative analysis of post-Communist change from Central Europe to Eurasia. Furthermore, the 2006 edition, in addition to continuing to provide a separate section on Kosovo in the Serbia and Montenegro country report, introduced separate authorship of the Montenegro and Serbia sections to provide a more detailed analysis of each administrative area.

The 2006 edition retained the expanded ratings categories from 2005 (local democratic governance and so on) and has expanded thematic coverage this year. For example, country analysts were asked to provide information about the Internet