The struggle for democracy in the NIT region has global implications. If democracy’s defenders are to expand recognition of the value and promise of democracy, here are some steps they should take.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents both a dire threat and an urgent opportunity for democracy in the Nations in Transit (NIT) region. If the international democratic community is to stem the spread of authoritarianism and defend and strengthen fundamental freedoms, like-minded leaders must seize this pivotal moment to undertake creative, multilateral, and sustained policy solutions in the face of extraordinary challenges.
To be effective, these solutions will need to involve states, civil society, and the private sector. Care should be taken to exert pressure on authoritarian leaders without inadvertently strengthening the alliances between undemocratic rulers, or the alternative financial systems on which they often rely. In situations where authoritarians employ violence or aggression, pressure should be exerted while still preserving opportunities for de-escalation.
The struggle for democracy in the NIT region has global implications. Other authoritarian rulers are watching the response to the invasion of Ukraine and learning lessons about the resolve of the international democratic coalition. If democracy’s defenders are to expand recognition of the value and promise of democracy, practical first steps should include efforts to:
RESTRICT THE ABILITY OF AUTHORITARIANS TO CO-OPT THE LIBERAL INTERNATIONAL ORDER
- Address the financial-crime loopholes authoritarians exploit. To combat the systemic corruption and kleptocracy that enables authoritarians to maintain power, democracies must close structural loopholes they have for too long permitted. Stricter rules for shell companies, tax havens, and anonymous trusts can limit autocrats’ ability to launder assets in democracies. Because autocrats are typically able to amass enormous financial resources at home, democracies must also work together to limit their ability to further enrich themselves. One impactful step would be charging the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—whose evaluations financial institutions and investors study closely—with establishing a new set of anticorruption standards. Detailed recommendations for the FATF and other anticorruption measures are here.
- Refrain from investments that enrich authoritarians and undermine fundamental freedoms. Private companies should adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, carefully considering whether investments or the sale of their products will benefit governments committing rights abuses. Where companies operate, they should conduct periodic assessments of how their products and actions might affect rights, and mitigate harm and prevent further abuse when they are found to do so. Detailed recommendations for the private sector are here.
- Apply targeted sanctions as part of a comprehensive foreign policy, and minimize impacts on civilians. Targeted sanctions can be an impactful response when authoritarian rulers commit abuses at home, target critics for transnational repression abroad, or commit acts of aggression against sovereign states—especially when applied multilaterally. But when sanctions are too broad, prodemocracy actors and ordinary citizens can suffer due to a sudden inability to access funds, goods, or safe means of travel. Such impacts should be mitigated as much as possible, including through a commitment to avoid discrimination resulting from sanctions based on nationality or geographic location alone, and other careful analysis of how restrictive measures affect rights activists, civil society, and ordinary people. Exemptions for key items and services, such as the provision of internet services to ensure access to information, can also mitigate harm. Pressure should be applied to states that do not comply with sanctions efforts. Detailed sanctions recommendations are here.
SUPPORT DEMOCRACY AND ITS DEFENDERS
- Support prodemocracy actors, civil society groups, and human rights defenders. When threats arise, short-term needs typically include relocation and legal and medical assistance. Longer-term needs include security, psychosocial support, and flexible funding to sustain work. Democratic governments should welcome as refugees activists forced to flee, and protect those who may be targets of transnational repression. In the NIT region, eight governments were documented by Freedom House as having engaged in transnational repression. All are consolidated authoritarian regimes. Transnational repression recommendations are here.
- Support independent media and access to reliable information. Providing the public with access to fact-based information and on-the-ground reporting is one of the best ways to combat authoritarian power and propaganda. But independent media face physical and legal threats from hostile regimes, as well as online censorship, and often lack sustainable funding. Support for independent media in the NIT region should concentrate on diversifying funding streams, addressing the politicization of news, and protecting editorial independence in democracies; mitigating political interference in hybrid regimes; creatively addressing the lack of independent media in autocracies; and protecting global internet freedom. Read more on supporting independent media, countering disinformation, and addressing censorship, including in Russia.
- Strengthen free and fair elections. Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of any democracy, and independent and transparent electoral processes are necessary to foster a competitive electoral environment and citizens’ trust in election integrity. Democracies should provide financial support to the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)—which conducts both long-term assessments of campaign environments and election-day observation—and dedicate support to domestic observer efforts. Read more here and here.
- Address democratic deficiencies at home. Freedom House has tracked a decline in global freedom for 16 consecutive years, and a decline in the NIT region for 18 consecutive years. The EU should do even more to protect democracy internally and promote it in the bloc’s neighborhood. Russia’s war in Ukraine makes action on unresolved rule-of-law violations by EU member states, especially Hungary and Poland, urgent; the invasion also raises challenges for the bloc including the risk of increasing xenophobia and militant nationalism. The European Commission and other EU institutions should deploy all available tools, including the so-called conditionality mechanism, which the European Court of Justice upheld in February.
- Prioritize democracy in EU integration, and advance the process in the NIT region. The current crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine the EU accession process along the lines of defending democracy in the region. The bloc should finally start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, pressing Bulgaria to drop objections to the latter’s candidacy. The EU should also expedite consideration of membership applications lodged by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, cutting red tape while maintaining high standards for commitments throughout the application process.
Countries and Data
Nations in Transit is Freedom House’s research project on democracy in the 29 formerly communist countries from Central Europe to Central Asia.
2022 Nations in Transit Report Map
Explore the interactive Nations in Transit 2022 map, where you can view countries by Democracy Status and by trend.
Full Report: Nations in Transit 2022
Read the full 2022 Nations in Transit report, featuring essays from Freedom House experts.