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Democracy Deficit Grows in Former Soviet Union
27 June 2011
The authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union have built governance systems that are resistant to reform and therefore increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises of the sort recently seen in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a new study released by Freedom House.
Nations in Transit 2011, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual assessment of democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, also finds that the ever-growing tenures of authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union have contributed to a number of looming governance problems, including the inability to develop law-based systems, tackle corruption, and—especially in the case of energy-dependent states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—diversify their economies.
Without an opportunity for a peaceful rotation of power, citizens in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union are presented with the frustrating prospect of political stagnation for many years to come, adding to the potential for unrest. [See chart] This phenomenon is described in greater detail in the Nations in Transit overview essay.
“The recent upheaval in the Middle East should raise real questions among authoritarian, seemingly entrenched regimes in the former Soviet countries,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.  “While the case for meaningful reform in these countries is clear, the nondemocratic regimes in the region are heading in the wrong direction and run the risk of suffering the fate of their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria.”
This year’s analysis also found challenges to democracy in Ukraine, which has been viewed as a key test case for reform in the region. Ukraine has experienced a clear reversal under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, suffering declines in a total of five areas, including steep reductions in judicial independence and national democratic governance.
Hungary, a European Union member state, experienced declines in four areas, including significant setbacks in national democratic governance and independent media. In the Balkans, while Croatia and Serbia made modest progress as part of their broader efforts toward EU accession, five other countries suffered declines. In the former Soviet region, Moldova showed the biggest improvement, though there was also progress in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Russia, the former Soviet Union’s most influential country and a lodestar for authoritarian regimes in the region, is now in the midst of a tightly managed leadership transfer, and saw its overall democracy score fall in this year’s analysis. The only uncertainty surrounding the country’s March 2012 presidential election seems to entail the choice between Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, which will be resolved by a small elite circle rather than by voters. In economic terms, Russia needs to attract non–energy sector investment to grow, but the country’s recent track record is one of capital flight and shrinking levels of foreign direct investment, a testament to the arbitrary nature of business regulation and property rights under the current regime.
“The transatlantic democracies have a clear strategic interest in helping reforms in Russia and other former Soviet countries sooner rather than later, and under more orderly circumstances,” said Sylvana Kolaczkowska, managing editor of the report. “Given developments in the Middle East, the United States and EU need to reevaluate their respective approaches to the recalcitrant authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union.”
Nations in Transit findings will be released in London as part of a public panel event at the Legatum Institute on June 27.
Other Key Findings:
  • Reform-Resistant Authoritarian States: Despite the clear need for reform, a critical mass of regimes in the former Soviet Union is effectively resistant to change. Several of these governments have never opened themselves to political competition or other elements of a democratic system in the 20 years since independence, while others—particularly Russia—have actively rolled back partial progress made in previous years.  The democracy scores recorded by Nations in Transit show that all nine countries in the authoritarian categories have grown more repressive over the past decade, and the region’s autocrats seem determined to retain their monopolies on power.
  • Russia at a Pivotal Point: Russia saw its overall democracy score fall due to deepening pressures on the judiciary and federal encroachments on local governance, as regional and local executives who once came to office through elections were replaced by appointed officials. The setbacks in these two areas outweighed an improvement in the civil society category. Despite the ongoing pressures and obstacles imposed by the authorities, civil society persisted in organizing rallies to oppose local officials in Kaliningrad, defend the Khimki forest outside Moscow from development, and assert the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. In response to these efforts, police raided many organizations, confiscating computers and documents, and broke up a number of demonstrations with excessive force.
  • Deteriorating Media Environment in All Subregions:Declines were most numerous in the independent media category in 2010, appearing in every subregion covered in Nations in Transit. A total of seven countries—Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Ukraine—regressed on the media indicator. Hungary, though an EU member state and still one of the better performers in the study, suffered the largest decline after its government pushed through restrictive new media legislation. News media in new EU member states confront growing challenges from an increasingly difficult economic environment.
  • Setbacks in the Balkans/Resilience in New EU States: While Croatia and Serbia continued to make gradual progress in 2010 on reforms associated with EU candidacy, five other countries in the region—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro—suffered declines in their overall democracy scores. Such backsliding, which stemmed from a variety of stubborn obstacles to reform in these countries, is a reminder that the EU and the United States do not have the luxury of disengagement from this subregion. A total of six new EU states improved in this year’s assessment. More generally, the democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics have shown considerable durability in weathering a difficult economic downturn.
Nations in Transit examines democratic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. The latest edition assesses developments that occurred in 2010 and assigns each country a set of democracy scores based on performance on key indicators.
Nations in Transit 2011: Summary of Ratings Changes
Electoral Process
4 declines: Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kosovo
7 improvements: Czech Republic, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia
Civil Society
1 decline: Hungary
5 improvements: Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Serbia
Independent Media
7 declines: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine
1 improvement: Moldova
National Democratic Governance
5 declines: Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Kosovo, Ukraine
7 improvements: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia
Local Democratic Governance
5 declines: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine
No improvements
Judicial Framework and Independence
6 declines: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan,
Russia, Ukraine
2 improvements: Moldova, Slovakia
1 decline: Latvia
6 improvements: Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Slovakia
Democracy Score
12 declines: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Ukraine
11 improvements: Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia
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.