Authoritarianism growing in Eurasia, Freedom House warns

By bne IntelliNews June 26, 2015

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As the war in Ukraine makes clear, democratisation in Eurasia is not simply being slowed or stalled, but is actively opposed by forces that are determined to see it fail, according to Freedom House. The number of countries that the Washington-based democracy watchdogs describes as “consolidated authoritarian regimes” has more than doubled since it published its first "Nations in Transition" report two decades ago.

“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,” the Washington-based democracy and human rights watchdog said.

When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only two countries in Central Asia –Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes”, whereas now Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have joined their regional peers, with Azerbaijan being the only country considered so in the Caucasus. 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 systematised their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretence of inclusive politics,” the report said.


“In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev’s regime brought a new intensity to its multiyear 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 US-funded media and democracy organisations, Azerbaijan chaired the executive body of the Council of Europe from May to November, and it is currently hosting the 2015 European Games,” the report notes. The country’s NIT score has fallen nearly every year for the past decade, Freedom House said, leaving it with a ranking worse than Russia, Tajikistan or Belarus in this year's NIT report.

“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,” the democracy watchdog said. “Still, the ruling Georgian Dream bloc won every directly elected mayoral seat and majority control over every legislature.”

Despite an offer of an EU Association Agreement in 2013, Armenia decided 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 mostdependent on Russia due to its closed border with Turkey, the military threat from Azerbaijan, and Russian ownership of key energy and electricity infrastructure,” the report noted. “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.”

Central Asia

Despite geographically located in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan has many similarities with its Turkic cousins in Central Asia. Like countries in Central Asia, in Azerbaijan the Aliyev regime is becoming increasingly authoritarian. It intensified its crackdown on dissent in 2014, pushing Azerbaijan’s democracy score to 6.75, near the bottom of the 7-point scale. Despite releasing a number of political prisoners, these actions were not accompanied by any shift in policy or greater for independent political activity in Azerbaijan. “At year’s end, it was estimated that Azerbaijan still held at least 90 political prisoners,” it said.

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,” it said.

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 report noted. “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 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to register as ‘foreign agents’, carbon copies of which have sprung up across the region since Moscow adopted it in 2012.”

Central Asia’s most isolated countries – 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 formalised the already widespread practice of persecuting people with prior convictions through a variety of ‘preventative’ restrictions, enforced by police and the country’s ubiquitous neighbourhood committees.” Uzbek authorities are using traditionally tight-knit communities in the country known as “mahalla” (neighbourhood) for controlling their members by establishing “mahalla committees” to report to authorities on the life of communities and advance government policies in them.

Kyrgyzstan, which used to be known as an “island of democracy” in a sea of Central Asian dictatorships, is still the best-performing country in the region, and unlike its neighbours 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.”

The country is now on the path to copy Russian legislation that tighten laws governing NGOs operating in the country: in late May, the Kyrgyz parliament was scheduled to debate the legislation better known as the “foreign agent” law.

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