Democracy on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia

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By Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, Project Director, Nations in Transit

photo of a tank with soldier in Ukraine, and birds in foreground
Ukrainian soldiers near Slovyansk, Ukraine, July 2014. Photograph by Sasha Maksymenko

As the war in Ukraine makes clear, democratization in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia is not simply slow or stalled. It is actively opposed by forces that are determined to see it fail.

The findings of the 2015 edition of Nations in Transit (NIT), Freedom House’s annual study of democratic governance in 29 countries from Central Europe to Central Asia, underscore the growing audacity of democracy’s foes in Eurasia, where 4 in 5 people live under authoritarian rule.

When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only three countries—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes.” Since 2000, however, the number of such regimes has more than doubled, and Eurasia’s average democracy score has fallen from 5.4 to 6.03 on a 7-point scale. Over the last 10 years in particular, authoritarian leaders who paid lip service to democratic reform have systematized their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretense of inclusive politics.

In 2014, Russia earned its largest ratings decline in a decade, reflecting the fact that Moscow’s aggression abroad is closely tied to the Putin regime’s domestic struggle for survival. As it sought to destabilize the new democratic government in Ukraine, the Kremlin stepped up its suppression of dissent at home, targeting online media, opposition figures, and civil society groups with legal bans on “extremism,” trumped-up criminal charges, and other restrictions.

In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev’s regime brought a new intensity to its multi-year crackdown on activists and journalists who threatened to expose official corruption and other abuses. Many were jailed during the year on fabricated charges like hooliganism or possession of weapons and drugs. Even as it shut down U.S.-funded media and democracy organizations, Azerbaijan chaired the executive body of the Council of Europe from May to November, and it is currently hosting the 2015 European Games. The country’s NIT score has fallen nearly every year for the past decade, leaving it with a ranking worse than Russia, Tajikistan, or Belarus in Nations in Transit 2015

Democracy’s most brazen opponents are far less powerful in Central and Southeastern Europe, yet there are cases in which parties and personalities that openly flout democratic norms have risen to the top. Media freedom, national democratic governance, and the fairness of the electoral process in Hungary have declined more rapidly in the five years since Viktor Orbán and his right-leaning Fidesz party came to power than in any other NIT country during the same period. Only Russia’s judicial independence rating has seen as much deterioration as Hungary’s over the last five years.

While Orbán stands out in the region for the virtual political monopoly he has achieved, he is not alone in his disdain for democratic standards. The European Union and its aspiring member states have no shortage of individuals and groups that, through the exercise of political and economic pressure, or by exploiting public anxieties and prejudices, contrive to keep or obtain power at the expense of democratic values and institutions in their countries. 

Perhaps the most alarming fact about these trends in Eurasia and Europe is that they are not unrelated. Menaced by nearby Russian military activity and aggressive propaganda aimed at their Russian-speaking national minorities, countries on the EU’s eastern fringes risk overreacting in ways that threaten free speech and other civil liberties. Across Europe, Russian money and inspiration emboldens xenophobic and illiberal political movements that could break European unity on critical human rights and foreign policy matters. Wealthy Eurasian autocracies more broadly—through their energy firms, lobbyists, investments, and offshore accounts—have a corrupting influence on European politicians and businessmen, who help to dampen criticism of such regimes’ abuses, forestall any punitive action, and weaken institutional safeguards in their own countries. 

Information war

Throughout 2014, propaganda masquerading as news and disseminated through Russia’s state-controlled media worked to simultaneously obscure and legitimize the Kremlin’s aggression abroad. Nearby countries that felt threatened by this offensive, particularly those with sizeable Russian-speaking minorities, reacted in a variety of ways, some of which amounted to censorship.

Ukrainian authorities, facing both a military invasion and a deluge of misinformation from Moscow, suspended the retransmission of at least 15 Russian television channels in 2014. Moldova, whose breakaway territory of Transnistria is supported by Moscow, also imposed suspensions and fines on some stations for carrying Russian propaganda.

Even Latvia and Lithuania, which despite some recent declines receive among the highest ratings for media independence in Nations in Transit, struggled to come up with appropriate responses to Russian propaganda. Latvia banned the rebroadcasting of Rossiya RTR for biased reporting and incitement to hatred, emphasizing the danger of programming that “splits society” over the situation in Ukraine and on “issues concerning Latvia’s foreign and domestic policy situation.”

Lithuania’s media watchdog suspended rebroadcasts of Russia’s Channel One and the Gazprom-owned NTV Mir for three months each, after they aired a Kremlin-friendly cinematic interpretation of the Soviet army’s failed attempt to remove Lithuania’s pro-independence government in 1991. Lithuania also temporarily blocked broadcasts by the Russian channels RTR Planeta and REN TV Baltic for inciting hatred over and against Ukraine. In December, President Dalia Grybauskaitė proposed legislation that would increase fines on broadcasters that spread war propaganda, and allow the radio and television commission to refuse licenses to broadcasters that have committed “crimes against Lithuania or have links with certain organizations that may threaten national security.”

Estonia, which ranks just below Slovenia as the most democratic country in the survey, was more circumspect in its reaction, advancing plans for its own Russian-language television station with programming governed by journalistic principles of accuracy and objectivity.

Ukraine in transit

The event that raised alarm in Moscow and triggered its military intervention—the February 2014 collapse of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarian government—was a clear boon for democracy in Ukraine. Massive street protests calling for European integration hardened into a determined movement against corrupt elites after authorities attempted to disperse the demonstrations with gunfire, and support for Yanukovych in the parliament quickly evaporated. His flight from the country paved the way for fair and competitive elections that featured considerable turnover in the political class.

The protest movement, known as Euromaidan, also generated a surge of civil society activism that continued throughout the year, with citizen groups collaborating in drafting government reforms and providing aid to those affected by the conflict in the east. In another positive trend, state pressure on media outlets eased markedly during 2014. 

For all of these breakthroughs, the stability and security of Ukraine’s new government and institutions remained fragile. Many crucial reforms had yet to be enacted at year’s end, and Kyiv’s control over its territory was battered by Russia’s occupation of Crimea and infusions of military personnel and equipment into the Donbas region. The Russian-instigated separatist conflict in the Donbas has devastated the area, cost thousands of lives, and hampered Ukraine’s efforts to revive its already weakened economy.

Reactionary Russia

The example set by the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine posed a serious challenge to the Kremlin, which had been working to crush dissent since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 was greeted with opposition protests. However, the regime’s efforts to sabotage the new Ukrainian government by force of arms created new domestic problems, as international sanctions weakened the economy and activists raised objections to the unacknowledged Russian military presence in the Donbas.

Throughout 2014, the Russian government used new and existing laws to harass civil society, branding human rights activists and other critics as “foreign agents” and “extremists.” With flagrant propaganda dominating state-controlled television, authorities also put legal and regulatory pressure on the country’s few independent news outlets, like Dozhd TV and Vedomosti, as well as on numerous online media platforms. Regional elections in September were carefully managed from above, with any genuine opposition eliminated, and LGBT people continued to be scapegoated as moral degenerates who would run amok if the West had its way.

In a year of such disturbing developments, Russia earned its largest single-year decline in a decade. It now has a worse democracy score than Tajikistan.

Weak institutions in Eurasian states seeking EU ties

Despite Russian threats and attempts to derail the process, both Moldova and Georgia joined Ukraine in signing Association Agreements and related free-trade pacts with the EU in June 2014, and they remain, with Ukraine, the best NIT performers in Eurasia. Yet Moldova’s progress toward EU standards on a number of indicators has been dispiritingly slow. The November parliamentary elections, though genuinely competitive and generally well administered, were marred by some significant deficiencies, including the abrupt disqualification of the pro-Russian Patria Party just days before the voting.

Apart from Ukraine, Georgia is the only country in Eurasia to have earned a recent improvement in the electoral process rating. Free and more competitive elections in 2012 and 2013 led to increased pluralism at the national level, and in 2014 Georgian cities held direct mayoral elections for the first time, with five major parties actively campaigning for seats. Still, the ruling Georgian Dream bloc won every directly elected mayoral seat and majority control over every legislature.

Armenia was offered an EU Association Agreement in 2013, but it moved to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union instead. While all three of these countries are subject to Russian pressure due to crippling territorial disputes that Moscow has encouraged and sustained, Armenia is the most dependent on Russia due to its closed border with Turkey, the military threat from Azerbaijan, and Russian ownership of key energy and electricity infrastructure. Notwithstanding its rapid growth in internet penetration, the prosecution of some officials on corruption charges, and signs of improvement in the administration of elections, Armenia’s overall democracy score has not budged in three years and is still somewhat worse than 10 years ago.

Indeed, in addition to their territorial problems, all three countries continue to suffer from weak, politicized judicial systems that often fail to maintain the rule of law or hold political and business elites accountable for abuses. Even when ostensibly reformist, pro-European politicians win elections in such settings, the credibility of their platforms and of the democratic model in general is damaged by unchecked graft and opacity.

Dictatorship prevails elsewhere in Eurasia

The Aliyev regime’s intensified crackdown on dissent in 2014 pushed Azerbaijan’s democracy score to 6.75, near the bottom of the 7-point scale and even lower than that of Belarus, once described as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Both countries released a number of political prisoners late in the year, but in neither case were these actions accompanied by any shift in policy or greater tolerance for independent political activity. At year’s end, it was estimated that Azerbaijan still held at least 90 political prisoners.

As with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan’s wealth and strategic cooperation have discouraged many European and other democracies from demanding accountability for its poor human rights record. In 2014, the authorities shut down protests and arrested demonstrators, closed independent media outlets, and fined and jailed religious leaders. New criminal and administrative codes created further restrictions on the use of social media and freedom of assembly.

Democracy indicators for Tajikistan declined for the fourth consecutive year in 2014 as the government continued its sustained offensive against perceived threats, from opposition activists and their lawyers to academic researchers. The use of a pliant judiciary to mete out such harassment has reached critical levels, as have harsh conditions in Tajikistan’s prisons. At year’s end, the parliament was considering a version of the Russian law requiring certain nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register as “foreign agents,” carbon copies of which have sprung up across the region since Moscow adopted it in 2012. 

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continued to earn the report’s worst possible rating of 7 on nearly every indicator. New legislation adopted in Uzbekistan in 2014 formalized the already widespread practice of persecuting people with prior convictions through a variety of “preventative” restrictions, enforced by police and the country’s ubiquitous neighborhood committees.

Kyrgyzstan is still the best-performing country in Central Asia, and unlike its neighbors it is not currently classified as a consolidated authoritarian regime. However, it lost ground on the civil society indicator in 2014 as the government increased restrictions on freedom of assembly and NGOs that had pushed back against illiberal legislative proposals the previous year.

Stagnation and backsliding in the Balkans

Most countries in the Balkans continue to make only fitful progress on Nations in Transit’s democratization indicators, and there are still no consolidated democratic regimes in the region. In fact, three countries—Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro—have worse democracy scores now than they did five years ago.

New EU member Croatia’s democratic institutions are still considered “semiconsolidated” according to the NIT methodology, which takes into account the country’s overwhelmed court system, its struggles with high-level corruption, and the pressure and intimidation frequently faced by its journalists.

In Albania, the government that took office in 2013 has initiated some welcome reforms and taken preliminary steps to combat corruption. However, the court system has yet to establish a track record of high-level prosecutions. The weakness of investigative journalism is compounded by pervasive organized crime. After three rejections, Albania officially became an EU candidate country in June 2014.

Serbia, which is currently moving toward EU accession, registered a decline in its independent media rating for 2014. As flooding devastated parts of the country in May, the government declared a state of emergency and blocked media criticism of its response to the disaster. Cyberattacks, threats against journalists, and economic pressure led to increased self-censorship and a decrease in investigative reporting throughout the year. Three prominent news programs were canceled in 2014 amid allegations of political interference.

Threats to media independence and a decline in journalistic standards have become more pronounced throughout the region. In neighboring Montenegro, a popular tabloid launched a smear campaign against MANS, a prominent NGO, and several activists. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, strong ties between publishers, reporters, and politicians have nearly eradicated truly independent journalism. 

Kosovo has recently benefited from an increase in independent news outlets and investigative journalism online, but media in the country continue to suffer from problems common to most of its neighbors, particularly progovernment bias at public broadcasters, self-censorship caused by editorial pressure from political leaders and private owners, and harassment or attacks on journalists that usually go unpunished.

In Macedonia, presidential and early parliamentary elections in April 2014 were marred by progovernment media bias and abuse of administrative resources, leading to another long-term parliamentary boycott by opposition deputies. The government continues to pursue a number of positive EU-mandated institutional reforms, but worrying developments in the last few years have called into question the ruling party’s commitment to political pluralism and transparency. Throughout 2014, civil society groups and spontaneous popular movements pushed back unsuccessfully against problematic government-backed proposals, including legislation undermining the independence of universities.

Unmet expectations in Central Europe

Nearly all the EU member states of Central and Southeastern Europe have consolidated their democratic institutions and created strong protections for civil society organizations and the media in the quarter-century since the fall of communism. Nevertheless, the average Nations in Transit democracy score of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 has declined by 0.25 points over the last decade. With Russia working actively to destabilize and demoralize democracies in the region, factors including the role of money in Central European politics, the pliability of judicial institutions, and economically weakening media sectors all raise concerns about the durability of these countries’ gains. 

The only country in the group to register a net improvement in 2014 was the Czech Republic, where a new government restored some stability to politics despite friction within the ruling coalition and widespread concern over increasing partisan influence in the media. Romania, meanwhile, escalated its prosecution of high-level corruption cases, resulting in its first ratings improvement in that category since 2007. Unfortunately, media bias and polling problems for citizens living abroad during the presidential election led to a decline in Romania’s electoral process rating. Although Slovakia received a negative ratings change due to increasing concentration of media ownership, the replacement of notoriously autocratic and litigious Supreme Court chairman Štefan Harabin was a positive development that may lead to improved transparency of the judiciary in the years to come.

Bulgaria’s judiciary has benefited from reforms implemented in connection with EU accession, but the court system’s failure to curb organized crime through convictions and asset seizures remains a serious problem, as do nontransparent and uncompetitive appointment procedures in the country’s highest judicial bodies. In 2014 the politicized Supreme Judicial Council proved unable to elect a new chair for the Supreme Court of Cassation, leaving the post vacant for three months. In May, a member of the Sofia city prosecutor’s office launched a probe into President Rosen Plevneliev’s dealings with an international energy and environmental services company. The parliamentary investigation that accompanied the judicial probe was spearheaded by the far-right party Ataka and supported by the then ruling Bulgarian Socialist Party, of which Plevneliev had been critical.

In Poland, the legitimacy of apparently free and fair local elections was undermined by a high percentage of spoiled ballots and the National Electoral Commission’s mishandling of a technical malfunction during tabulation.

Hungary’s ‘illiberal state’

In Hungary, elections in 2014 confirmed and strengthened the dominance of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz-led coalition. Throughout the parliamentary campaign, opposition parties criticized alleged gerrymandering in the ruling party’s favor and the government’s heavy influence over state television and radio, among other problems. Most of these grievances were echoed by international transparency monitors and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which also pointed to strong government influence over private media and the advertising market, and grossly unequal financial resources among the competing parties. A team of anticorruption watchdogs accused Fidesz and its junior coalition partner of spending more than twice the legal limit on their campaigns.

The resulting decline in Hungary’s electoral process rating pushed the country into the “semiconsolidated democracy” category, where it joined Bulgaria, Romania, and three of the Western Balkan states. A new advertising tax on media, a rise in political interference with and harassment of NGOs, and several controversial Constitutional Court rulings contributed to a total of five ratings downgrades for Hungary in 2014, a distinction shared only by Russia. In July, Orbán explained in a speech that he was building an “illiberal state” that “does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom,” but that also “does not make this ideology a central element of state organization.”

Conclusion: Fighting to win

Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine should dispel any lingering illusions that the Putin regime is a strategic partner of the EU and shares, even if it does not always pursue, broadly democratic goals and a commitment to the stability and security of the region. This regime is not an eccentric or demanding ally; it is an enemy of peace and human dignity and an evangelist for a system of government that degrades and disregards fundamental human rights, even when not at war.

Many of Russia’s authoritarian neighbors are equally hostile to democracy and human rights, but as they grow wary of Moscow’s unpredictable and even imperialistic behavior, there may be opportunities to extract concessions that put them on a path to reform. When governments in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Belarus look to Europe or the United States as a source of balance in this new geopolitical reality, Brussels and Washington should not miss the chance to set conditions such as the release of political prisoners and the easing of restrictions on opposition parties and the media.

Above all, it is imperative that the EU and its allies provide as much support as possible to the development of a strong democracy in Ukraine. Eurasia’s entrenched authoritarian regimes tirelessly warn their people that political change on the scale of the Euromaidan movement can only end in chaos, violence, and poverty. A Ukraine that is able to prosper economically while developing institutions and practices based on transparency and accountability would do more to shape attitudes in the region than any doomsday scenario presented on Russian television.

Given the nature of the external threat, Brussels and each EU member state will also need to do a better job of upholding democratic standards inside Europe. The EU has recently shown some determination on issues like energy policy and Ukraine-related sanctions. But to maintain its strength and unity, the bloc must insist on transparency in business and politics, ensure free and fair elections, and vigorously defend media freedom within its borders. This means creating mechanisms for monitoring, support, and enforcement through penalties, if necessary.

The past year and indeed the past 10 years have shown that democratization is often an adversarial process, and its proponents—whether dissidents, journalists, diplomats, or political leaders—cannot win if they are unwilling to fight.

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