Nations in Transit 2013: Authoritarian Aggression and the Pressures of Austerity | Freedom House

Nations in Transit 2013: Authoritarian Aggression and the Pressures of Austerity

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by Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska


Autocratic regimes in Eurasia fought energetically to keep the threat of democratic change at bay in 2012. Their invariable response to new domestic pressures and the ongoing political ferment in the Middle East was to strike more vigorously at perceived adversaries, whether advocates of striking oil workers, dissident bloggers, religious nonconformists, environmental activists, human rights defenders, or the leaders of opposition parties. In some cases, governments with established records of repression introduced new and arguably redundant measures to further constrain dissent, having already engaged in years of censorship, subjugated the justice system, and in some contexts resorted to violence. As a result, governance institutions in the region’s autocracies grew more dysfunctional, less independent, and more prone to corruption.

In this grim environment, Russia served as vanguard and model. With the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency, Russian authorities ratcheted up policies designed to intimidate members of the political opposition and activists in civil society organizations. While previous measures have sought to obstruct or constrain Russian civil society, the new round of initiatives were designed to neuter or eliminate any groups that dealt even tangentially with political or public-policy matters. In waging war against civil society, Putin was aided by the control over the legislature, the media, and the judiciary that he had already achieved during his 13 years as the country’s paramount leader.

A similar pattern predominated among Russia’s autocratic neighbors, with civil society activists singled out for especially harsh treatment. Kazakhstan cracked down on labor and opposition activists for allegedly organizing and inciting violence in Zhanaozen in December 2011 and used their convictions to justify banning opposition media outlets, while the regimes in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Belarus stepped up their persecution of perceived enemies through existing legal and extralegal mechanisms. Indeed, the 2013 edition of Nations in Transit shows a troubling deterioration in conditions for civil society activity across Eurasia, with 5 of the region’s 12 countries registering declines in that category. Two additional countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, continued to earn the survey’s worst possible rating—7, on a scale of 1 to 7—for civil society. Two countries in the Balkans and Central Europe, Kosovo and Hungary, also suffered deterioration on this indicator, suggesting a broader problem. Across all categories, 17 of the survey’s 29 countries registered net declines for the year, compared with just 6 that made net improvements.

In Central Europe, a public backlash against unpopular austerity measures destabilized several governments in 2012, testing the durability of democratic institutions. Despite frequent government changes and heightened political polarization, most states in the region were able to respond to mounting pressure without significantly straying from core democratic norms. In Romania, however, the new coalition government approved in May treated public dissatisfaction with President Traian Băsescu and his party as a mandate to entrench its own rule and browbeat critical media outlets. Throughout the region, public demonstrations against economic hardships overlapped with demands for greater government accountability and transparency, a reaction to persistent corruption and influence peddling. Slovakia and Estonia both received downgrades in their corruption scores to reflect backsliding in this area. Numerous graft scandals notwithstanding, the Czech Republic registered a score improvement on judicial framework and independence due to an increase in the anticorruption activity of the state prosecutor’s office. The only other country in the survey to earn an improved rating for its judicial framework was Hungary, where Constitutional Court rulings struck down several problematic laws during the year, mitigating the previous year’s fairly steep downgrade.

The fresh decline in Hungary’s civil society rating came as new evidence substantiated the perception that public funds are being used to support civic groups linked to the government by ideology or personal ties. Meanwhile, the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continued to defend the controversial reorganization and restaffing of Hungary’s media, data protection, and judicial oversight bodies, making minor concessions to international pressure even as it drafted legislation that seeks to regulate additional dimensions of political and social activity. It is worth noting that several legal provisions nullified by the Constitutional Court during this report’s 2012 coverage period have been reinstated in 2013, via constitutional amendment.

Corruption in the Balkan states appears to be deepening, despite pressure from the European Union (EU) and international lending institutions to strengthen judicial independence and produce verdicts in high-profile cases. Across the region, political interests and personal connections between government and business regularly influence public tender and privatization procedures. Judicial institutions are overburdened and subject to political interference. And journalists—particularly those covering organized crime and corruption—face political pressure, intimidation, and attacks. As evidence of these problems mounted, three countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo—earned downgrades on corruption. Kosovo’s other decline, on civil society, stemmed from new legislation that allowed the central bank to convert nonprofit microfinance institutions into private businesses without preserving a previous requirement that such dissolved entities’ assets be redistributed to other nonprofit groups. The change meant that some €100 million in accumulated capital could be removed from the civil society sector and handed to private shareholders.


Notable Trends

  • Assault on Civil Society: Autocratic regimes that experienced mass protests in 2011 took steps to prevent further demonstrations during 2012, adopting restrictive new legislation and systematically employing repressive tactics. Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan all received downgrades in the survey’s civil society category as a result of increased pressure and new legal constraints on public assembly, religious activity, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Conditions for civil society also declined in Hungary and Kosovo during the year.
  • Electoral Gains in Georgia and Armenia, Abuses in Russia and Ukraine: While neighboring Azerbaijan aggressively stifled political opposition, Georgia and Armenia conducted parliamentary elections under new electoral laws that emphasized equal access to campaign resources and media coverage. Some abuse of administrative resources and polling-day violations persisted, but overall competitiveness improved, and both votes yielded more representative legislatures. For the first time, the Armenian National Congress, which had formerly denounced all government institutions, won seats in Armenia’s National Assembly and began participating in parliamentary politics. In Georgia, a coalition of former opposition parties led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili won a dramatic victory, resulting in independent Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power through elections. By contrast, parliamentary elections in Ukraine were marred by large-scale abuse of administrative resources, opaque campaign finances, and bribery. Over 400 candidates were rejected ahead of the vote, half of them on the basis of minor technical infractions. Earlier in the year, Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency following a deeply flawed election that was roundly condemned by international monitors. Putin, who has served as prime minister or president since 1999, is now scheduled to be in office through 2018, at which point he is eligible to run for another six-year term.
  • Signs of Strain in Central Europe: Pressure from the EU and other international institutions to implement harsh austerity measures and public frustration with persistent corruption contributed to frequent government changes in the new EU member states. In this region, only three countries made advances in any Nations in Transit categories, and seven experienced declines. A new government in Romania took rapid steps to consolidate its power over state institutions, triggering a political crisis that adversely affected the country’s media environment. Media freedom also declined in Bulgaria and Poland, while Slovakia slid backward on judicial independence and corruption. Estonia received its first ratings downgrade in four years due to evidence of political corruption. In two exceptions to this trend, the state prosecutor’s office in the Czech Republic showed a renewed commitment to pursuing high-profile corruption investigations, and the political environment in Latvia benefited from new campaign finance legislation and the reduced influence of politically connected business magnates.
  • Persistent Corruption in the Balkans: Critical reforms stalled in all Balkan states in 2012, despite pressing EU deadlines for Croatia and Serbia. Albania’s multiyear ratings decline continued as Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his ruling Democratic Party consolidated power over state institutions and used their influence in the judicial system to secure acquittals in highly publicized corruption cases. In Kosovo, in addition to the new legislation on nonprofit microfinance groups, a mysterious death highlighted the severity of corrupt practices in privatization deals. Meanwhile, authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two main entities, long distracted by political stalemate and ongoing challenges to the legitimacy of central institutions, proved unable or unwilling to address growing evidence of widespread graft or pursue cases against leading politicians, a striking number of whom have been implicated in corruption.

Regional Findings


The recent wave of crackdowns on civil society activity in Eurasia is alarming in its scope and ferocity, but it is in some ways the predictable continuation of a pattern that has been apparent for well over a decade. All 12 states in the region now perform worse in Nations in Transit than they did 15 years ago. The executive authorities in most of these countries have progressively coopted or demolished potential threats to their monopoly on power, including judicial autonomy, legislative oversight, formal political opposition, a politically independent business community, and critical mass media. Civil society organizations, to the extent that were still allowed to operate, represented one of the last links in this chain.  

In Russia, after months of protests and public discontent surrounding his decision to return to the presidency, Vladimir Putin went on the offensive with a series of legislative measures that increased penalties for unauthorized political demonstrations, created new mechanisms for internet censorship, expanded the definition of treason, recriminalized slander, and restricted the ability of NGOs to raise funds. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) both left Russia under government pressure in the fall of 2012, as did a number of U.S.- and EU-based nonprofits. In the spring of 2013, the election watchdog Golos, which played a key role in exposing massive fraud in Russia’s most recent parliamentary and presidential elections, became the first organization to be fined under a new 2012 law for failing to register as a “foreign agent.”

Growing authoritarianism in Ukraine has yet to result in explicit targeting of NGOs or new restrictions on public assembly. However, extensive NGO monitoring of parliamentary elections in October did not prevent the rampant abuse of administrative resources, nontransparent campaign financing, and biased media coverage in favor of the ruling Party of Regions. After the party nevertheless failed to secure the supermajority needed to pass constitutional amendments, President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through a controversial law allowing constitutional amendments via referendum. Two of the government’s most outspoken opponents, former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, remained behind bars at year’s end following a series of politically motivated prosecutions. Lutsenko was pardoned in April 2013 following appeals by numerous international officials.

The democracy gap between Azerbaijan and its Caucasian neighbors continued to grow in 2012. The peaceful and more inclusive elections in Georgia and Armenia contrasted sharply with the brutal suppression of public gatherings in the run-up to the Eurovision song contest in Baku, and the introduction of huge fines for anyone participating in unauthorized rallies in the country. Meanwhile, investigative reports by foreign media exposed the enormous personal assets of President Ilham Aliyev’s family, prompting legal amendments that protect the secrecy of corporate ownership structures and further limit journalists’ ability to uncover corruption. When Hungarian authorities made a surprising decision to repatriate former Azerbaijani army officer Ramil Safarov, who had been imprisoned for brutally murdering an Armenian officer while training in Budapest in 2004, the government in Baku gave him a hero’s welcome and immediately set him free, thereby halting any progress in Azerbaijan’s negotiations with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Widespread harassment of dissidents and another set of egregiously fraudulent elections caused the EU to renew its sanctions against Belarus for another year in October 2012. Already the worst performer in the Nations in Transit survey outside of Central Asia, Belarus received a second consecutive downgrade on civil society as the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka escalated its disruption of organized and independent activism before parliamentary elections in September. After the elections, in which the opposition was once again denied even a single seat, the prominent human rights organization Platforma was dissolved, and the human rights center Viasna was evicted from its offices in connection with the 2011 sentencing of its director, Ales Bialatski. When a plane from Sweden dropped teddy bears bearing messages in support of freedom of expression over Minsk in early July, irate Belarusian authorities expelled the Swedish ambassador for being “too supportive of human rights.”

While continuing to invest heavily in boosting its image abroad, the government of Kazakhstan has also worked more aggressively to quash perceived threats to the regime since 2010. Legislation signed into law in January 2012 imposed harsh penalties on individuals who “influence public and individual consciousness” through the distribution of “unreliable” information “to the detriment of national security.” Authorities also aggressively pursued charges against those they held responsible for the Zhanaozen oil workers’ strike and the related violence that erupted in December 2011. In June 2012, 34 Zhanaozen residents and labor activists were found guilty of “organizing mass disorders”; in October, opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and two other defendants were convicted of “inciting social hatred” that led to the violence. The latter conviction was used to ban the Alga political party and a number of opposition media outlets on the basis of their “extremism.”

Tajikistan’s civil society rating worsened due to a multiyear trend of relentless harassment aimed at independent religious leaders and Islamic groups. During 2012, the government shut down a number of mosques, installed surveillance equipment in others, and closely monitored the activities of various religious figures. Although libel was decriminalized in July, Tajikistan earned a downgrade in independent media—its second in two years—amid a dramatic increase in censorship of online media and social-networking sites. This was particularly evident in the wake of a large-scale military operation in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. Tajikistan’s media environment can still be considered relatively open by regional standards, but the events of the last two years suggest that the gap between Tajikistan and its more autocratic neighbors is narrowing.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have bottomed out on most Nations in Transit indicators, including protections for civil society. The entrenched regimes in both states have long since eradicated meaningful political opposition and driven out or imprisoned independent journalists. In Uzbekistan, human rights activists and devout Muslims are frequent targets of brutal attacks by the authorities. In Turkmenistan, nearly all functioning NGOs either support the government or receive direct government funding. A presidential decree issued there in January 2013 created a state commission to supervise all foreign-funded projects and tightly restrict access to outside money for “legal and physical entities” in the country.

The only Central Asian state that did not pursue an active policy of limiting independent social, religious, or political activity in 2012 was Kyrgyzstan, where most NGOs have operated more freely since the violent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. In 2012, the country’s overall democracy rating improved for the third consecutive year as a result of competitive local elections that brought significant gains to new parties. The score change made Kyrgyzstan the first state in Central Asia to rise out of the category of consolidated authoritarian regimes. Notwithstanding valuable improvements in electoral process and media freedom, the country still suffers from pervasive corruption and a judicial system that is susceptible to political influence and disproportionately targets ethnic Uzbeks.

Just three other countries in Eurasia registered score improvements in 2012. Improved elections under a new electoral code in Georgia ushered in a historic victory for the opposition Georgian Dream movement, despite evidence that new campaign finance legislation was used overwhelmingly to target the party. Armenia’s parliamentary elections in May also resulted in a more representative legislature, though by year’s end the two main opposition parties’ unexplained decision not to field candidates for the 2013 presidential race had dashed hopes of a truly competitive contest. The country received a score improvement in this year’s survey due to an improved media environment in the run-up to the parliamentary vote and a significant decline in the number of defamation suits. In Moldova, the election of a president in March ended a 30-month deadlock over the office that had obstructed governance at the national level. The country also received a small improvement in its corruption rating thanks to the new interior minister’s aggressive efforts to eliminate corruption in law enforcement and the promotion of e-governance to reduce opportunities for bribery and petty fraud.


New EU States

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 perform well on most Nations in Transit democracy indicators, but their lingering weaknesses have been exacerbated by the economic crisis that began in 2008 and related pressure on governments to impose unpopular austerity measures. Most of these countries have experienced or narrowly avoided either early changes in government or snap parliamentary elections in the last two years. While they demonstrate political accountability and peaceful rotation of power, such disruptions have stalled progress on reforms and prevented several states from further consolidating their other democratic institutions. Seven of the survey’s 10 EU member states experienced net declines in their democracy scores—four more than last year. The only countries to receive net ratings improvements for 2012 were the Czech Republic and Latvia. These are also the only countries whose democracy scores have registered overall improvement since they joined the EU.

Frustration with austerity measures has heightened the public’s sensitivity to corruption scandals, which erupt regularly in most Central European states despite solidly designed anticorruption legislation and institutions. In the Czech Republic, support for the government of Prime Minister Petr Nečas plummeted as higher taxes and budget cuts competed for media attention against a string of corruption cases and infighting between the three parties of the ruling coalition. A total of 12 ministers had resigned by year’s end, many of them over accusations of corruption or dubious financial dealings in their past. In some respects, however, these revelations can be viewed as positive developments, as they reflect an increase in activity by the state prosecutor’s office—traditionally the weakest link in the country’s judicial system—and what appears to be a renewed commitment to pursuing high-profile investigations. The country’s record on such cases in 2012 earned it a quarter-point improvement in the Nations in Transit rating for judicial framework and independence.

In Slovakia, the emergence of corruption allegations, some of them dating back several years, further eroded public support for center-right parties that were in power at the beginning of the year. Snap parliamentary elections were held in March 2012, after Prime Minister Iveta Radičová’s government lost a confidence vote tied to approval for a eurozone bailout fund in late 2011. The elections brought a sweeping victory to Robert Fico’s leftist Direction–Social Democracy party, which campaigned on promises to ease austerity measures and root out corruption. The latter goal did not materialize in 2012, as key cases dragged on without resolution. More disturbingly, government-backed legislative proposals under discussion at year’s end included a bill that would weaken transparency in public procurement, already a major source of corruption in the country. In addition to its downgrade on the corruption indicator, Slovakia’s rating for judicial framework and independence declined as a result of the unchecked influence of Supreme Court chairman Štefan Harabin, who interfered throughout the year in the election of judges to the Judicial Council, the principal organ of self-governance within the judiciary.

In January 2012, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Bucharest, calling for the ouster of Romania’s political leadership due to harsh austerity policies and long-standing allegations of systemic corruption. The center-right government, led by the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), was forced to resign, and a new center-left government headed by the Social Democratic Party took a series of widely criticized steps to consolidate its power over state institutions after assuming office in May. It replaced the ombudsman, the only official with the authority to challenge government decrees before the Constitutional Court; issued an emergency order to limit the Constitutional Court’s powers; replaced the PDL leaders of both chambers of parliament; and passed a motion to suspend the PDL-allied president, Traian Băsescu, pending an ultimately unsuccessful referendum on his impeachment. The year’s political turmoil exposed the fragility of media freedom in Romania. Journalists covering the January protests faced violence and harassment, and government officials exhibited hostility toward independent outlets while seeking to use legislation to influence the dissemination of information. The strain placed on Romania’s democratic institutions during the year yielded ratings downgrades on national democratic governance and independent media.

In both Slovakia and Romania, pressure by international lenders to introduce unpopular policies has allowed political leaders who resist or defy international advice to position themselves as defenders of the public interest, and to tar their domestic opponents as quasi-treasonous. But the most prominent example of this phenomenon may be Hungary, whose Nations in Transit ratings have weakened more since EU accession than any other member state, with the largest declines in 2010 and 2011. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the conservative Fidesz party has used its parliamentary supermajority to increase political control over a number of key institutions, most notably the judiciary and the media regulator. It has also adopted a new constitution that places policies on culture, religion, morality, and the economy, including issues such as public debt and pensions, under the category of “cardinal law,” meaning relevant legislation needs a two-thirds majority to pass. In effect, the changes make it exceedingly difficult for any future government to alter the structures and policies established by Fidesz. Meanwhile, the ruling party has continued to alter the constitution at will to suit its short-term needs. With downgrades in civil society and local democratic governance in 2012, Hungary’s overall democracy score is edging closer to the barrier between consolidated democracies and those classified as “semiconsolidated,” a category that includes Bulgaria, Romania, and the better-performing Balkan states. However, Hungary also earned an improvement in 2012, in recognition of Constitutional Court rulings that pushed back against some of the more questionable legislative changes introduced in 2011 and 2012.

Bulgaria formed a new government in May 2013 after the country’s largest protests in 16 years forced early elections, but the low turnout reflected citizens’ deep frustration with economic hardship and the entire political class. With multiple downgrades in judicial independence, independent media, and national democratic governance, Bulgaria’s overall democracy score has declined almost twice as much as Romania’s since the two countries joined the EU in 2007. In 2012, the independence of Bulgaria’s media sphere deteriorated further as ownership became more concentrated and leading outlets accused each other of corrupt dealings with the government, tax fraud, and other crimes. The economic crisis has battered media revenues, increasing their dependence on government advertising and politically connected owners. Journalists in Bulgaria continue to face the threat of physical violence, often in response to investigations that imperil powerful business interests or seek to expose organized crime.

Poland also received a downgrade on independent media in 2012. Polish news outlets remain pluralistic and free, but they are deeply partisan, a tendency that is also visible in media regulation bodies. In 2012, the National Council of Radio and Television refused to grant a concession to TV Trwam, an ultraconservative station linked to the country’s main opposition party, Law and Justice. Dubious legal decisions, such as the criminal sentencing of a website creator for defaming the president, demonstrated flaws in the country’s protections for freedom of expression. Poland was the only country in the EU to avoid a recession throughout the worst of the global economic crisis, but its economy slowed in 2012, and the popularity of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government sagged as it pushed an agenda of unpopular, long-postponed reforms. In October, Tusk sought and won a parliamentary vote of confidence in a bid to reassert his legitimacy in the face of heavy criticism.

Estonia suffered its first ratings downgrade in four years in 2012. Its score for corruption, which had improved in 2010, returned to its previous level after the state prosecutor’s office dropped an investigation into money laundering that implicated the justice minister, indicating a growing level of influence peddling in Estonian politics. Estonia retains the second-highest democracy score in the Nations in Transit survey. In the study’s best-performing country, Slovenia, allegations of corruption against senior politicians and an unpopular austerity package fed a surge of public protests that spread across the country in the spring of 2012. While freedoms of assembly and expression were generally respected, some of the protests turned violent. In February 2013, the government collapsed for the second time in less than two years due to unrest over austerity measures.

Latvia’s corruption rating improved in 2012 for the second year in a row as a result of increased regulation of political party financing, the shrinking influence of so-called oligarchs in Latvian politics, and the improved performance of the country’s main anticorruption agency. Neighboring Lithuania continues to score well on most Nations in Transit indicators, but it suffered a downgrade on electoral process in 2012 due to a record-breaking number of incidents of voter fraud in the October 2012 parliamentary elections.


The Balkans

The process of EU accession has motivated important reforms in the western Balkans and provided a formal mechanism that gauges each country’s progress toward fully democratic institutions and a functioning market economy. However, the prevailing conclusion among Freedom House’s regional experts is that the implementation of reforms essential to rule of law—particularly those underpinning the independence of the judiciary—has been incomplete, perfunctory, and undermined by a lack of political will. The ratings of the region’s best performers, Croatia and Serbia, have shown very little movement in the last three years, and none at all in 2012. Meanwhile, four other countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia—have registered troubling declines.

Over the last five years, Albania has shown the region’s largest ratings declines across nearly every indicator. This trend continued in 2012, as Prime Minister Berisha and his Democratic Party removed perceived opponents from key positions and replaced them with new appointees. In January, a landmark bribery and abuse-of-power case against one of the prime minister’s key allies ended in an acquittal when the Supreme Court ruled that the video evidence of the crime could not be authenticated. One year earlier, the footage in question had triggered major antigovernment demonstrations in which four protesters were shot and killed by security forces.

The acquittal is symptomatic of a culture of impunity that persists to varying degrees in all of the western Balkan states, even those that perform reasonably well on other governance indicators. Across the region, public tenders lack transparency and accountability, with political interests and personal connections between government and business actors regularly interfering in bidding procedures. Judicial institutions are overburdened and subject to political influence. Journalists—particularly those covering organized crime and corruption—face political pressure, intimidation, and attacks. In Croatia, the public’s jubilant reaction to the sentencing of former prime minister Ivo Sanader in November spoke to a frustration with the perceived immunity of Croatia’s political elite to punishment in connection with murky procurement deals and the flawed privatizations of the 1990s. Croatia has made greater strides in pursuing high-level convictions than any other state in the region, resulting in a half-point improvement on corruption since 2009, but sentences like the one against Sanader remain extremely rare.

The same is true in Serbia, where the government has yet to establish a track record of systematically investigating and prosecuting corruption, especially in high-profile cases. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Serbia was awarded EU candidacy in March 2012 after making progress in negotiations with Kosovo over customs and other technical issues. Neither Serbia nor Montenegro registered ratings changes in 2012. Macedonia received a downgrade on judicial framework and independence after alarming violations in a prominent murder investigation and blatant political pressure on the courts by the health minister cast serious doubt on the prospects for comprehensive judicial reforms and anticorruption efforts.

Since late 2010, political stalemate in Bosnia and Herzegovina has undermined effective governance at the national level and impeded reforms linked to EU and NATO membership. One of the country’s two constituent entities, the Republika Srpska, continues to deny the legitimacy of central government institutions. Meanwhile, widespread graft is becoming increasingly evident, abetted by the weakness of anticorruption agencies and a dearth of political will to encourage effective investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. Monitoring of public spending has been problematic for years, as auditors face constant political pressure, and the institutions they audit routinely reject their findings. Politicians at all levels are often implicated in corrupt activities, but they are rarely tried or sentenced. At least two high-level corruption cases ended in acquittals in 2012. A downgrade in the corruption category in this year’s survey marks Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fifth consecutive net ratings decline.

The rising visibility of corruption has failed to inspire more energetic or substantive antigraft efforts in Kosovo, where the authorities have focused on establishing new institutions rather than implementing an existing anticorruption strategy. The mysterious suicide of the head of Kosovo’s Privatization Agency—and a note he left describing political pressure for privatization bids—bolstered widespread distrust of national authorities’ role in the privatization process. In April, the head of the government’s task force against corruption, Nazmi Mustafi, was arrested on suspicion of misconduct. Later in the year, two senior officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs were accused of bribery. Kosovo’s rating for judicial framework and independence improved in 2011 as a result of court reforms, but events in 2012 suggested that these changes have not addressed fundamental weaknesses in the country’s justice system. Kosovo received a downgrade for the year on corruption, in addition to its score decline on civil society.


Conclusion: Tolerating Repression

In 2014, Russia will host the Winter Olympics, the first time it has hosted an Olympiad since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The games will take place in Sochi, a resort town in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region. Much has been made of the event’s significance for President Putin’s popularity and Russia’s image abroad, of the tremendous cost and corruption associated with city development efforts, and of the decision to hold the games so close to the sites of relatively recent terrorist attacks and the disputed territory of Abkhazia. The more fundamental question of why authoritarian Russia was awarded the privilege of hosting the world’s most important sporting event has receded into the background, as it did in 2008, when the Summer Olympics were held in China. In sports, such occurrences are becoming increasingly common. Belarus will host the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation championship. In 2012, Ukraine cohosted the European soccer tournament, though some European officials refused to attend the matches in protest of former prime minister Tymoshenko’s incarceration.

Athletic events are not the only arena where despotic regimes can act as benevolent hosts to international competitions. When Azerbaijan was selected to host the 2012 Eurovision song contest, the country’s beleaguered political opposition sought to harness the media attention on Baku and direct it toward human and political rights violations under the Aliyev regime. In a sense, they succeeded, as their protests resulted in dozens of arrests on trumped-up charges, followed by allegations of ill-treatment in custody. Illegal evictions in the capital that began in 2011 continued in 2012 to make way for the construction of the contest venue. Months after the Eurovision crackdown, Azerbaijan hosted the 2012 Internet Governance Forum, a summit dedicated to the free exchange of ideas on the vitality, security, and stability of the internet.

More unsettling is the degree of acceptance that illiberal regimes have won in the context of international forums and organizations explicitly linked to diplomatic, security, and democratization goals. In 2010, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet republic to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body whose mandate includes the promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, and fair elections—concepts for which President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime shows blithe contempt. Russia is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and a leading member of at least half a dozen other influential international bodies, and the Kremlin has used these positions to block unified global action that might set precedents detrimental to its own impunity, as with the crisis in Syria.

This report has presented evidence of a consistent deterioration of democratic institutions across Eurasia over the past decade or more. The decline in democratic standards is pervasive, affecting the conduct of elections, freedom of expression and the press, government transparency, judicial independence, and the ability of citizens to band together in free association to seek change. The recent surge of new laws and policies aimed at suppressing civil society activism is indicative of a methodical authoritarian march from one institution to another, with the ultimate goal of neutralizing all potential sources of opposition and criticism.

As the report makes clear, the countries of Central Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans have faced serious challenges in recent years. The repercussions of the European economic crisis have been felt by some new EU states, while others continue to grapple with ineffective government and endemic corruption. These problems must be addressed urgently and in a sustained manner if further backsliding and more intractable difficulties are to be avoided.

But the overarching message of Nations in Transit is the steady decline in Eurasia. Although there are glimmers of hope in a few countries, public life in the region is most often dominated by manipulated elections, a propagandistic media, a legal system that serves the leadership, and puppet opposition parties.

Pushing for change in authoritarian settings can be an extraordinarily daunting proposition given the increasingly sophisticated and thorough methods of control that have been embraced by aspiring presidents-for-life. However, the world’s democracies are not without levers of influence, and there is much they could do to alter authoritarian behavior and encourage beleaguered dissidents. At the most basic level, they could begin by ceasing to treat repressive regimes as normal governments with popular mandates, and choosing not to reward them with the privilege of hosting sporting events, songfests, and global conferences.

Most importantly, democracies must recognize that the negative trends in the region are not a temporary phenomenon, but the outcome of determined efforts by increasingly brazen and tough-minded leaders to remain in power, whatever the cost to their societies, for the indefinite future. As recent events in the Middle East and the region’s own history indicate, the damage caused by this sustained repression, if left unchecked, could continue to cripple institutions and pose risks for the wider world long after the current rulers have passed from the scene.


Overview of Ratings Changes

Electoral Process
2 declines: Lithuania, Ukraine

↑ 1 improvement: Georgia

Civil Society
7 declines: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Tajikistan

Independent Media

4 declines: Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Tajikistan

↑ 1 improvement: Armenia

National Democratic Governance

2 declines: Albania, Romania

↑ 2 improvements: Georgia, Moldova

Local Democratic Governance

2 declines: Albania, Hungary

↑ 1 improvement: Kyrgyzstan

Judicial Framework and Independence

2 declines: Slovakia, Macedonia

↑ 2 improvements: Czech Republic, Hungary


6 declines: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Kosovo, Slovakia

↑ 2 improvements: Latvia, Moldova

Democracy Score
17 declines: Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine

↑ 6 improvements: Armenia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova