Attacks on democratic institutions are spreading faster than ever in Europe and Eurasia, and coalescing into a challenge to democracy itself.
Incumbent leaders and ruling parties are corrupting governance and spreading antidemocratic practices across the region that stretches from Central Europe to Central Asia. These actions are opportunistic, but are often cloaked in an ideological agenda. And as they become increasingly common, they are fueling a deterioration in conditions that will have global implications for the cause of human freedom.
Democracy has never been the only game in town, but for more than two decades after the transitions that ended the Cold War, leaders and politicians continued to pay lip service to the democratic model. Over the past decade, however, amid the erosion of the liberal democratic order and the rise of authoritarian powers, the idea of democracy as an aspirational end point has started to lose currency in many capitals. Existing institutions’ failure to address pressing societal concerns, increasing polarization, and growing inequality have fueled uncertainty and anger, and major democracies’ mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided additional fodder to those interested in exploiting disillusionment with the traditional champions of democratic governance.
In this period of change and discontent, antidemocratic leaders in the region have started to redefine norms and renegotiate the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A contestation that began with Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy” in the mid-2000s, and continued with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” a decade later, has expanded, and forms of governance that are decidedly not democratic are taking root. Antidemocratic politicians are also sharing practices and learning from one another, accelerating the turn toward alternatives.
Countries all over the region are turning away from democracy or find themselves trapped in cycle of setbacks and partial recoveries. In the 2021 edition of Nations in Transit, covering the events of 2020, a total of 18 countries suffered declines in their democracy scores; only 6 countries’ scores improved, while 5 countries experienced no net change. This marked the 17th consecutive year of overall decline in Nations in Transit, leaving the number of countries that are designated as democracies at its lowest point in the history of the report.
Antidemocratic norm-setting in Central Europe
Two countries, Poland and Hungary, stand out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade. Hungary has undergone the biggest decline ever measured in Nations in Transit, plummeting through two categorical boundaries to become a Transitional/Hybrid Regime last year. Poland is still categorized as a Semiconsolidated Democracy, but its decline over the past five years has been steeper than that of Hungary.
The ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw have long been emulating each other in cracking down on judicial autonomy, independent media, the civic sector, and vulnerable minority populations. Recently, however, they have moved from attacking the liberal principles that underpin democracy to setting new norms themselves and openly spreading antidemocratic practices.
Hungary’s model of media capture, for example, has been openly embraced by likeminded governments in the region. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have overseen the mainstreaming of smear campaigns and progovernment propaganda, which contributed to the SNS’s sweeping election victory and the formation of a nonrepresentative parliament in 2020. In Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Janša—who had benefitted from Hungarian investment in the Slovenian media industry—has elevated verbal attacks on journalists to a new level. But this antidemocratic learning process is most visible in Poland, where last year the government used a state-owned energy giant to acquire four-fifths of the country’s regional media outlets and announced plans to impose an advertising tax, which would strip an already ailing private media sector of vital resources. Both of these steps were essentially torn from the playbook of Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party.
Transfers of antidemocratic norms have also taken place on issues such as the rights of LGBT+ people and abortion. In these cases, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has led the way, deploying hateful rhetoric and mobilizing its base around the fight against what it calls “LGBT and gender ideology.” In the wake of PiS’s successes, including the 2020 reelection of President Andrzej Duda after a homophobic campaign, Hungary’s government similarly elevated attacks on the LGBT+ community to the top of its political agenda, ending the legal recognition of transgender people and amending the constitution to ban adoption by same-sex couples.
The goal of the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland is to legitimize their antidemocratic practices. This is why, after politically subjugating their respective court systems, Fidesz and PiS have started to promote their judicial “innovations” in newly founded law journals. And while their planned “rule of law institute" has yet to get off the ground, they have clearly staked out a position beyond the pale of Europe’s legal norms, challenging the European Union’s rule-of-law enforcement mechanism as “political” and arguing that there is no commonly agreed definition of the rule of law.
Deepening autocracy in Eurasia
The entrenchment and expansion of antidemocratic norms and ideas is not a new phenomenon for the broader region. Such practices and innovations have long been shared between Russia and its neighborhood. Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of “foreign agents” laws to crack down on civil society, the use of legislation on extremism and counterterrorism to silence political opponents, and the creation of puppet organizations that legitimize authoritarian governments and affirm their sovereignty.
But in Russia and the rest of the Nations in Transit region’s eastern half, this pattern has taken a noticeable turn toward deepening autocratization.
For the first time in the report’s history, Russia’s score on the National Democratic Governance indicator bottomed out, reflecting President Putin’s absolute control after the fraudulent 2020 constitutional referendum and his vicious efforts to silence dissenting voices. The attempted murder of Aleksey Navalny in 2020 and his imprisonment in a notorious penal colony this year was just the most prominent demonstration of the regime’s cruelty. The suppression of protests with unprecedented severity, the extension of the foreign agents law to practically any citizen involved in political activities, and plans to tighten state control over the internet all suggest that the Kremlin is fearful of its critics and determined to secure a choreographed victory in the fall 2021 elections by any means necessary.
Similarly, in Belarus, the brutal crackdown on protests that followed the fraudulent 2020 presidential election represented a significant escalation for Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. After years of repression punctuated by periods of diplomatic thaw, Lukashenka faced a groundswell of opposition as protesters from all walks of life united behind the prodemocracy candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Yet after months of mass arrests, beatings, torture, and the incarceration of scores of political prisoners, the vision of a more democratic Belarus now seems increasingly distant.
Kyrgyzstan, the only country in Central Asia that was reasonably close to emerging from the category of Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes, experienced a violent and extralegal power grab in 2020 by a political outcast and former prison inmate with links to organized crime. The confirmation of Sadyr Japarov’s rise to the presidency in January 2021, even if he is supported by a significant portion of the population, signals a return to strongman rule, and upcoming changes to the constitution are likely to further fortify his dominant position.
Perhaps the only bright spot in Eurasia was civil society’s incredible resilience in the face of democratic deterioration and the coronavirus pandemic. Organized civic groups, ad hoc grassroots initiatives, and conscientious citizens joined forces to fill the void left by the state in 2020. This exposed the massive governance failures of autocratic regimes while providing the population with much-needed help and hope in a time of crisis.
Reform movements losing steam
Nations in Transit is a catalogue of reform efforts; its methodology is rooted in the assumption that transition away from a nondemocratic system and toward something more democratic is both possible and desirable. Yet 2020 was not a good year for reform, and in many countries where there had been hope for change, much of the momentum seems to have drained away.
In Armenia, the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has triggered a domestic crisis that risks undoing the success of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. The country’s democracy score declined for the first time since the revolution, and developments to date this year, including tensions between the military and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, demonstrate that the situation could grow worse. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s reform efforts met with strong resistance from the judiciary as entrenched interests fought to preserve the status quo. The opportunity to uproot Ukraine’s corrupt, oligarchic system is closing, and steps in early 2021, such as the controversial shutdown of oligarch-owned television networks, underscore the difficulty of upholding democratic principles while confronting a stubbornly undemocratic establishment.
In Moldova, the election of Maia Sandu as president in late 2020 raised hopes for change, but her attempts to overcome hostility in the parliament in 2021 have led to protracted political and interinstitutional struggle, which could further weaken democratic safeguards. In Georgia, the opposition’s boycott of 2020 parliamentary elections and the February 2021 arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia clearly demonstrated the end of the country’s recent reform attempts. Georgia’s democracy score is now close to where it was a decade ago, before the current ruling party rode to power on a wave of public frustration with the increasingly autocratic incumbents.
By contrast, in North Macedonia and Uzbekistan, piecemeal efforts have yielded some positive change on the ground, resulting in improvements in the countries’ scores. The reforms in Uzbekistan—including in the agricultural and judicial sectors—are improving citizens’ lives, though they are clearly not aimed at cultivating democracy or allowing genuine political pluralism. In North Macedonia, meanwhile, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s center-left government has repaired some of the institutional damage wrought by his right-wing populist predecessor, and still has a chance to deliver the benefits of democracy.
A success story is especially needed in the Balkans, where democratic gains have been rolled back in most countries. While important transfers of power took place in Montenegro in 2020 and Kosovo in 2021, it is still unclear whether they will lead to an improvement in democratic institutions. And without such institutional transformation, any political opening is extremely difficult to sustain.
Democracies must take the field
The turn away from democracy and toward antidemocratic alternatives in the region will have global implications. The leaders and parties in question are openly demonstrating their rejection of democratic norms, which often comes hand in hand with the adoption and promotion of “authoritarian counter-norms.”
That such steps are taken by elected leaders claiming to act in the national interest—or according to an ideological agenda—can sometimes obscure the underlying reality: the ultimate goal of these practices, from institutional capture to the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, is to keep ruling parties and elites in power indefinitely. If antidemocratic norms are allowed to spread, they will legitimize a broad range of abuses and make life more difficult for millions of people, not just in autocracies but also in the gray zone between democracy and dictatorship.
The challenge faced by democracy’s defenders is significant, but not insurmountable. As antidemocratic leaders grow more ambitious and strategic, it is time for democrats to go beyond simply recognizing the threat. Rather than watching with concern on the sidelines, they need to take the field.
Best practices and lessons learned should be shared among democracies, just as autocrats have been exchanging their ideas. Democratic states also need to coordinate their foreign policies with a focus on core principles, not just security concerns or geopolitical competition. In ailing democracies and hybrid regimes, attention should be concentrated on keeping the door open to progress and buttressing the institutions that facilitate change, primarily the electoral framework and the media. And in authoritarian regimes that are ramping up oppression, democracy advocates will need to enhance monitoring and assist victims of persecution, while preparing to respond to any future opportunity for change.
Ultimately, however, democracies must deliver the benefits of free self-government to their people. Citizens will have to be presented with tangible results to restore trust in the system and build support for the shared mission of defending democratic ideals in an increasingly hostile world.
In this Edition:
The Antidemocratic Turn
Incumbent leaders and ruling parties are corrupting governance and spreading antidemocratic practices across the region that stretches from Central Europe to Central Asia.
Repression in Russia
For the first time in the history of Nations of Transit, Russia’s National Democratic Governance score has dropped to its lowest possible position.
Important changes of power took place in the region, but there is no magic formula for voting out antidemocratic parties.
Standing In and Standing Up
Organized civic groups, ad hoc grassroots initiatives, and conscientious citizens joined forces to fill the void left by the state in 2020.
Remarkable examples of resilience hold the key to improving not just the media environment, but the region’s overall democratic health.
Hope and Pushback
By confronting autocratic behavior and standing up for democratic values, ordinary citizens, civil society and political leaders can shape the conversation about democracy in the region.
Instability and Repression in Russia
By Mike Smeltzer
For the first time in the history of Nations of Transit, Russia’s National Democratic Governance score has dropped to its lowest possible position. The events of 2020, including a fraudulent constitutional referendum enabling President Vladimir Putin’s continued rule past 2024 and the attempted assassination of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, depict a political environment that lacks any trace of democratic character. A recent deluge of repressive acts by the Kremlin, such as Navalny’s unjust imprisonment, the brutal crackdown on subsequent nationwide protests, and the March 2021 arrests of opposition figures in Moscow, demonstrate how deeply threatened Putin feels by domestic developments. Recognizing that its relationship with the public has weakened, the Kremlin has chosen to drop its facade of “managed democracy” and is rapidly moving to a strategy of wholesale repression.
Society’s changing calculus
Russia’s deepening autocratization has been incremental but steady. Putin came to power in a period characterized by the preceding Yeltsin administration’s dramatic failures: war, instability, and oligarchy had marred its reputation. While the repressive nature of the Putin regime was evident in its early years—the Yukos trial, the elimination of direct gubernatorial elections, the closure of independent media outlets, and the harassment of journalists, along with the notable murder of Anna Politkovskaya—social, political, and economic matters stabilized under his leadership. Even as Putin established a kleptocratic system of patronage that captured and perverted Russia’s democratic institutions, society’s willingness to protest declined.
However, the tolerance ordinary Russians have shown towards their government’s antidemocratic drift has lately eroded. Recent standard-of-living improvements have not kept pace with the dramatic rise of the early 2000s. GDP-per-capita growth has stalled, real disposable incomes have fallen, and everyday necessities like food have become more expensive. The reasons for this vary from the impact of COVID-19 to the West’s sanctions, instituted after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Donbas in Ukraine. As Russians face deteriorating economic conditions, elite corruption—highlighted by crusaders like Navalny—has increasingly become a point of social irritation.
Through his investigations into high-level corruption and his campaign’s crafty use of social media, Navalny has turned away from the traditional opposition narrative about the Kremlin’s antidemocratic stance and human rights abuses. Rather, Navalny, ever the opportunistic politician, has sought to lay bare the vast extent of Putin-era corruption, and make explicit the connection between individuals’ deteriorating quality of life and the state’s support of the wealthy elite.
The Kremlin’s shifting response
As more and more Russians connect the dots between their daily grievances and the Kremlin’s corruption, Putin will likely consider any dissent to be an existential threat to his continued rule. And so, the Kremlin has shown a marked change in its response to expressions of dissatisfaction as it grapples with the shift in the public mood.
There has, until recently, remained a sliver of space for alternative voices in Russia, where protests are more common than is widely recognized. The Kremlin previously eschewed a pervasive campaign of repression, instead choosing when and where to apply the full force of the state in response to protests. For example, mass protests against pension reform in 2018 were not met with brutal repression by the police or security services, but with a partial policy rollback. In 2020, protesters in the northwestern region of Arkhangelsk who opposed an unwanted landfill project—and initially faced a forceful police response—won a rare victory against the elite, and even saw their prolandfill governor resign. Of course, ample evidence abounds of violent repression against concurrently held protests.
Using this tactic of selective repression, the Kremlin has used the law as a cudgel to wield against those who criticize Putin and his continued rule. Rather than simply outlawing dissent or opposition, the Kremlin perverted freedom of the press, electoral processes, and the rule of law to serve its own authoritarian ends. Through this incremental strategy, the Kremlin rhetorically remains a “managed democracy” as far as domestic audiences are concerned.
However, in an environment marked by increasing popular discontent—often directed at Putin himself—the regime has more recently favored a strategy of wholesale repression to maintain its grip. Civil society, independent media, and the political opposition have all felt the shift in the repressive nature of the state in 2021.
The authorities’ response to the early 2021 protests was uniquely repressive in the contemporary Russian context. More than 12,000 Russians were detained, in what independent media outlet Proekt described as a staggering intensification in judicial punishment against protesters. That figure represents a six-fold increase in the number of administrative arrests over protests held in 2017 and 2019.
At the same time, the state continues to shrink the space for dissenting voices, constraining the ability of dissatisfied Russians to learn or speak about events via independent media outlets, the online environment, or civil society. Russia’s foreign agent law, which was adopted in 2014 and has impacted the ability of civil society groups to operate, has been expanded to apply to independent media outlets and even individuals.
The Kremlin and its allies have also worked to keep the political opposition at bay. Aleksey Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent arrest are, of course, the most extreme examples of the complete silencing of Putin’s most serious political opponents. But the Kremlin has also attempted to exert more explicit control on the electoral environment by circumventing judicial oversight of campaigning complaints, mobilizing supporters against Navalny’s “smart voting strategy,” and, as mentioned above, arresting opposition figures.
Stability through repression
Unlike in 2016, President Putin finds himself in a precarious position ahead of this September’s parliamentary elections. While his dominant United Russia party is guaranteed to win a majority in the lower house, what with the regime’s top-down control of elections, the Kremlin may nevertheless see some cracks in Putin’s support among the population. Rather than a conciliatory state response to their legitimate grievances, Russians have witnessed a transition to fully consolidated authoritarian rule, defined by the attempted murder of political opponents and the silencing of any dissent. So long as Putin prioritizes the stability of his corrupt system of patronage over the public’s concerns, he will face an increasingly disaffected population that bristles at the quotidian inequalities of life in a kleptocratic state. And yet, as Russia’s civil society score has demonstrated in recent years, those who oppose this state of affairs will continue to mobilize and fight back, no matter the repression they face.
Managing Expectations about Breakthrough Elections
By Noah Buyon
During the present “recession” in democracy around the world, most democratic systems have not transformed neatly into authoritarian regimes. Rather, as recent editions of Nations in Transit demonstrate, declining democracies are entering what Thomas Carothers called the “gray zone” of hybridity. In the Nations in Transit region, some countries—such as Kosovo, Moldova, or Ukraine—have been mired in the gray zone for years, but others—notably Hungary, Montenegro, and Serbia—have only recently been reclassified as hybrid regimes, and still more are hurtling toward reclassification.
How can these countries exit the gray zone, or avoid it entirely? A defining feature of hybrid regimes is that their leaders continue to allow somewhat competitive elections. The contests are not necessarily free or fair, but neither are they complete shams, as is the case in authoritarian regimes. Consequently, hybrid regimes can be drawn back toward democracy through the ballot box if enough voters are willing to support new leadership. However, “while an opposition victory is not impossible” in the gray zone, as Larry Diamond has cautioned, “it requires a level of opposition mobilization, unity, skill, and heroism far beyond what would normally be required for victory in a democracy.”
To varying degrees, these traits could be seen in recent elections in Kosovo (2019 and 2021), Montenegro (2020), and Moldova (2020), along with the municipalities of Banja Luka and Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2020). In all of these hybrid regimes, the political opposition overcame the odds to unseat entrenched incumbents. Similarly, the 2020 national elections in Slovakia—a consolidated democracy that has been in decline—resulted in the ouster of the long-ruling Smer party.
The outcomes were not preordained. The governing parties enjoyed undue advantages at the polls, whether through clientelism, control over the media landscape, or other means. Prior to the opposition victories, none of the countries mentioned above had taken any steps to make their elections more open, as evidenced by their stagnant performance on Nations in Transit’s Electoral Process indicator.
Although each electoral breakthrough is unique, two interrelated factors may best explain how voters in hybrid or backsliding regimes have been able to “break the collective action problem and deliver change through elections,” as Tena Prelec and Jovana Marović put it.
First, these voters are angry. The recent electoral upsets occurred against a backdrop of corruption scandals and other abuses of power that revealed the ugly venality of the existing leadership. Kosovo, Montenegro, Moldova, and Slovakia perform far worse on Nations in Transit’s Corruption ratings than they do on any other indicator. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the sole exception, although that is partly because some of its other ratings are also quite low. A 2020 incident in which authorities awarded a contract for the importation of medical ventilators to a fruit-farming company underscores that corruption is by no means checked in the country. Stories of official wrongdoing have outraged voters and driven them to support anticorruption crusaders, including Slovakia’s victorious OĽaNO party, which ran on the slogan “Together against the mafia,” or Moldova’s newly elected president, Maia Sandu, whose slogan declared, “It’s time for good people.”
Second, citizens are casting ballots in large enough numbers to thwart incumbents’ efforts at intimidation and manipulation. In Kosovo, turnout was up 3.4 percentage points in 2019 and 7.7 in 2021, relative to the parliamentary elections in 2017. Turnout soared past 60 percent in Slovakia for the first time since 2002. Records were shattered in Montenegro, where nearly 77 percent of registered voters participated in last year’s elections, and among the diaspora in Moldova, which accounted for 15 percent of the votes cast in the first round of the 2020 presidential poll. These figures are especially striking in light of COVID-19, which contributed to historically low voter participation in nearby Croatia, North Macedonia, and Romania. The pandemic also trimmed turnout in Bosnia’s municipal elections, but only by a modest 1 to 2 percent.
Of course, these factors do not always translate into electoral breakthroughs. Public outrage at Montenegro’s self-serving elites goes a long way toward explaining how the political opposition was able to end the 30-year rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists, despite the latter’s misuse of state resources and domination of the media sector. However, in Poland, a similar set of advantages—the ruling Law and Justice party’s exploitation of state resources and political control over the public broadcaster—was sufficient to stymie the opposition’s energetic bid for the presidency.
There is no magic formula, then, for voting out the parties responsible for a country’s hybrid status. Moreover, there is no guarantee that an opposition win will bring an end to backsliding or an exit from the gray zone. As Licia Cianetti and Sean Hanley observe, it is fashionable to describe movements that ride to power on a wave of anticorruption sentiment as “prodemocracy,” but anticorruption politics can easily contain illiberal or other antidemocratic features.
Such negative qualities make it hard to celebrate the opposition’s triumph in Banja Luka or Montenegro unreservedly, as the new mayor of the former and the new government of the latter have espoused ethnonationalist, exclusionary views. Similarly, in its erratic and occasionally unconstitutional response to the pandemic, Slovakia’s OĽaNO-led government did not distinguish itself vis-à-vis its predecessor. In Moldova, President Sandu’s push to engineer a friendlier parliament through early elections has entailed numerous procedural violations, mirroring the risky “move fast and break things” approach adopted by the reformist governments of Armenia and Ukraine. While the victorious Vetëvendosje party in Kosovo represents a genuine break from the status quo, its qualified support for unification with Albania could unsettle the wider region.
Nevertheless, it is always the case that when corrupt or repressive incumbents lose power through elections, there is at least an opportunity for change in a more democratic direction.
It is unrealistic to expect that the leaders of hybrid or backsliding regimes will do anything to make it easier for voters to deliver electoral breakthroughs. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, for example, is constantly tinkering with the electoral framework to fortify its parliamentary supermajority. Yet the united opposition still has a chance to win its uphill battle in next year’s elections, because voters still have a real choice at the ballot box. By contrast, voters in Russia, which has long since exited the gray zone and joined the ranks of consolidated authoritarian regimes, have no such luxury in their upcoming parliamentary elections.
This makes it all the more tragic when opposition groups in hybrid regimes feel compelled to boycott elections due to dramatically tilted playing fields, as recently occurred in Georgia and Serbia. While depriving the winners of legitimacy and drawing attention to serious abuses, boycotts also deprive voters of what little opportunity for change may remain. Elections will not always result in an upset or propel a country out of its hybrid status, but the chances drop to zero when no one makes the attempt.
Standing In and Standing Up
By Noah Buyon and Mike Smeltzer
Denizens living in the countries covered by Nations in Transit will remember 2020 as an annus horribilis due in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic, with regional governments proving unable to meet the moment. At year’s end, countries in the Nations in Transit region featured heavily among the 10 that reported the world’s worst COVID-19 death tolls per 100,000 people (four), and even more so among the 10 with the worst suspected fatality undercounts (a staggering seven). Meanwhile, the Turkmenistani government has gone so far as to insist their country is virus-free.
A tragic combination of incompetence and negligence has allowed for these results. The year has been marred by dilatory crisis legislation, lackluster electoral management (making voting simultaneously less convenient and more dangerous), unchecked disinformation, budgetary starvation of local authorities, discriminatory policing, and rampant corruption, which triggered many of the score declines in this year’s survey. Ultimately, governments flailed while responding to COVID-19 and to the bouts of dislocation and violence that made 2020 so bleak.
While institutional actors have aggravated these challenges or otherwise abdicated responsibility, civic actors, ranging from everyday people to formal organizations, filled the leadership vacuum. It is largely thanks to civic mobilization and resilience in extremis that 2020 was not the worst year for democracy and good governance in the survey’s history. Below, we highlight how civil society held firm while other pillars of society buckled.
Civic actors in the region often supplemented, or substituted for, the state. As the Belarusian government adopted a policy of ignorance in response to COVID-19—which strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka called a “psychosis”—the private and third sectors effectively spearheaded the country’s response, coordinating care, procuring personal protective equipment and medical supplies, and setting social-distancing standards. In Tajikistan, where the autocratic government of Emomali Rahmon suppressed independent media outlets while promoting doctored pandemic-related data, activists shared information on how to take necessary health precautions and how to donate to the most vulnerable, all while disseminating accurate fatality figures.
Similar mutual-aid networks developed in many other countries. Armenian civil society actors absorbed tens of thousands of displaced people fleeing the Azerbaijani military’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, providing housing, clothing, and medicine, and assisting with family reunification while Yerevan struggled to prosecute the war. After Kyrgyzstani police absented themselves amid postelection rioting, self-defense groups worked to keep the peace.
Ultimately, however, civil society cannot do all the work that belongs to other institutions, least of all the state. Practically, they lack the capacity to. The impressive sums raised by the #BYCOVID19 crowdfunding campaign in Belarus and the Armenian diaspora’s Hayastan All Armenian Fund pale in comparison to state budgets. Moreover, civil society’s normative role is not to replace the state, media, or other institutions, but to complement and, when necessary, resist them.
Examples of pushback abounded in 2020, as civic actors pioneered innovative forms of pandemic-appropriate protest to hold leaders to account. As political infighting hobbled the Kosovar state’s COVID-19 response, frustrated citizens took to their balconies en masse, banging pots and pans to sound a call for unity. In Slovenia, thousands attended weekly demonstrations on bicycles to circumvent bans on gatherings, after allegations of political interference in the public procurement of medical supplies surfaced. Elsewhere, protesters maintained social distancing on picket lines by organizing convoys of cars and online flash mobs. However, these protests, lacking the full force of conventional street demonstrations, often failed to achieve their stated aims. Perhaps for this reason, in-person action continued in many countries, despite concerns about COVID-19.
It is notable that many street demonstrations were met with intense repression. Indeed, the year’s events have again demonstrated that civil society’s effectiveness is impeded when political elites view it as a threat. Recent events in Poland and Russia provide illustrative examples of this tendency. Having draped itself in a cloak of anti-“LGBT and gender ideology,” Warsaw cracked down on a mass movement contesting a Constitutional Tribunal ruling which effectively outlawed abortion. In Russia, demonstrators who rallied against the unjust arrest of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny took direct aim at Putin’s kleptocratic system of patronage and were subjected to unprecedented state violence.
Despite these reprisals and impediments, civic mobilization is the single most important factor keeping many regimes in the Nations in Transit region from backsliding or bottoming out entirely. Even if civil society is not a leading indicator of democratization, as Nations in Transit data suggest, it is certainly a bulwark against the spread of authoritarianism and antidemocratic alternatives in the region and the world at large.
By Zselyke Csaky
In functioning democracies, the media provides information to the public, mediates between citizens and politicians, and serves as a watchdog, uncovering abuses of power and forcing institutions to correct their course.
In practice, the delineation between politics and the press is unclear even in responsive democratic states, never mind the countries covered by Nations in Transit, which we often classify as Hybrid/Transitional or Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes. In much of the region, journalists and outlets are increasingly coopted, harassed, and silenced by those in power.
Independent and critical outlets faced increasing pressure from the media-capture model pioneered in Hungary—and to a lesser extent, Serbia—in 2020. Under this model, legal and economic tools are used to squelch critical outlets and bolster friendly reporting. While connected Hungarian businesspeople have not been entirely successful in establishing direct footholds in the Balkans, the model itself has been exported to much of the coverage region.
This model is adhered to in Slovenia, for example, with its government interrupting the public news agency’s funding stream. The Polish government, meanwhile, has used state-owned companies to take control of regional outlets while harassing critical media through administrative and legal measures. In 2020, Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s second-largest daily newspaper, was fighting over 50 lawsuits, many of them filed by the ruling Law and Justice party and its allies.
The Albanian media environment, which has long been plagued by oligarchic control like much of the coverage region, has also been affected by the increased use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). In addition, controversial antidefamation legislation threatened to restrict online speech there. The Georgian media environment was also affected by political interference and polarization in 2020, with the dismissal of staff members from publicly funded Adjara TV and Radio serving as a potent example of the pressure placed on journalists there.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic also narrowed the space for independent reporting, with media outlets finding themselves cash-strapped and consequently more vulnerable to political control. The Romanian government used the pandemic as cover to distribute €40 million ($44.9 million) to media outlets in a manner that strengthened clientelistic networks instead of outlets in need.
In repressive environments, the pandemic augmented persecution. The authoritarian regimes of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan denied the existence of COVID-19 months after the pandemic began and punished any reporting on the dire heath and economic consequences. Tajikistani authorities also introduced heavy fines for “false or inaccurate information,” threatened those “sowing panic,” and blocked websites keeping an independent tally of pandemic-related deaths.
The media crackdown was not limited to COVID-19 reporting. Belarusian authorities engaged in brutal repression after last summer’s elections, with hundreds of journalists facing arbitrary arrest, physical assault, and detention. Foreign correspondents saw their accreditation revoked or denied, while internet users encountered extensive shutdowns and website blocks. Russian authorities also tightened their grip by expanding the “foreign agents law” to include journalists (such as those working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), testing the implementation of a sovereign internet law, and escalating pressure on social media companies.
Notwithstanding the onslaught of negative news throughout the region, there were also remarkable examples of resilience. Exiled journalists, bloggers, and individuals active in diaspora communities—including those from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan—continued to report on developments in their home countries. Journalists also employed innovative means to continue their work in difficult conditions. Independent Belarusian outlets, for example, moved en masse to Telegram to circumvent government blocking.
Outlets facing precarious financial situations also turned to crowdfunding and membership-based solutions. A group of journalists who resigned from Index.hu—the most popular news site in Hungary—over a loss of editorial control launched Telex, an outlet that raised €1 million ($1.1 million) in its first month.
These examples of resilience, while sporadic, nevertheless hold the key to improving not just the media environment, but the region’s overall democratic health. Those looking to arrest the expansion of antidemocratic practices would do well to turn their attention to the media and work to buttress the independence of this institution.
Hope and Pushback: How Citizens and Political Leaders Can Band Together to Counter Repression
By Zselyke Csaky and Mike Smeltzer
Politicians are norm entrepreneurs. When they berate journalists, or whip up fear by alleging that upholding rights for LGBT+ people and ethnic or religious minorities harms the majority, they reap political benefits in the short term, but help entrench antidemocratic values in the long term.
Nations in Transit 2021 found frequent instances of politicians instrumentalizing dangerous rhetoric for political gain—such as Bulgaria’s nationalist reasoning for blocking North Macedonia’s European Union (EU) accession negotiations, and Sadyr Japarov’s embrace of exclusionary populist narratives to galvanize support in Kyrgyzstan. It also found instances where illiberal, top-down messaging took hold in public opinion and societal norms, such as growing hostility toward media in Slovenia, and frequent rhetorical attacks on LGBT+ people in Poland and Hungary.
However, by confronting autocratic behavior and standing up for democratic values, civil society, political leaders, and governments can shape the conversation as well. Over the past year, there were also a number of positive developments in the Nations in Transit region where ordinary citizens and politicians alike took action against attacks on democracy, and upended seemingly fixed narratives in the process.
Belarusian protesters propel political shifts
Events in Belarus offered a wake-up call to citizens and autocrats alike. For Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the political and civil unrest was a signal to orchestrate shows of support for fellow autocrats, in the hopes of preventing similar unrest at home. But for hundreds of thousands of Belarusians, another round of bogus elections was intolerable. And for supporters of democracy at all levels of society in Central and Eastern Europe, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s violent crackdown on the ensuing peaceful demonstrations was a step too far: after years of political tolerance of authoritarianism in Belarus, repression of the country’s massive prodemocracy movement galvanized international support for the demonstrators, and prompted real consequences for the longtime autocratic regime.
As citizens in the Baltics formed human chains in solidarity with their Belarusian neighbors, harkening back to the proindependence Baltic Way demonstrations 30 years earlier, political leaders grew vociferous in their denunciation of rights abuses under Lukashenka. Lithuania’s foreign minister vehemently rejected Belarus’s extradition request of opposition leader and likely presidential election winner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, for instance.
More directly impactful were the actions taken by political leaders, often in concert, to counter the repressive turn in Belarus. The EU issued three separate rounds of sanctions against the Belarusian regime, including penalties that targeted Lukashenka himself. Lithuania blocked EU payments to Belarus for a cross-border assistance program over concern about misuse. Additionally, both Estonia and Poland committed financial resources to “raise awareness of democracy and rule of law” in Belarus, and to provide funding for the country’s beleaguered independent media.
Standing up to threats at home
In addition to standing up for democracy in authoritarian states, some politicians and governments have spoken out on threats to democracy within the EU. While the Matovič government in Slovakia had a mixed record on issues of democracy and human rights, the country’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, made an unambiguous commitment to them on several occasions in 2020, calling for rebuilding trust in institutions domestically, and issuing strong criticism of neighboring Poland and Hungary for vetoing the EU’s rule-of-law mechanism. Čaputová’s rhetorical turn-in was a strong break with the past embrace of illiberal ideas in the Visegrad Four.
There were also instances of pushback against the authoritarian reach and influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the EU. In the Czech Republic, President Miloš Zeman has long advocated for closer ties, but a weariness of the CCP was growing more evident in public discourse in 2020. Meanwhile, governments in Romania, Lithuania, Croatia, and Slovenia have banned Chinese companies or suspended public tenders due to concerns about transparency and national security. And in 2021, amid a culmination of concerns over “dividing Europe,” the three Baltic countries, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia conspicuously scaled back their presence at the latest summit of the 17+1 platform on cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European governments, rejecting the CCP’s ongoing attempts to expand its global presence through multilateral institutions.
Amid a deluge of grim news from the region, these instances of pushback and cooperation might seem like isolated examples. But focusing only on the negative can warp our senses and prevent us from seeing that politicians can also change norms in a positive direction, one step at a time. Words matter, and not just when they are used to set a negative example.
Nations in Transit Map
In 2021, the number of democracies remained unchanged at 10, the fewest in the history of the report.
To counter the spread of antidemocratic practices in Europe and Eurasia, democratic countries should consider the following policy recommendations.
View the full Nations in Transit 2021 list of authors and advisers.
About Nations in Transit
Nations in Transit is Freedom House’s research project on democracy in the 29 formerly communist countries from Central Europe to Central Asia.