Eurasia "the world's least free subregion," claims Freedom House

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2013

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Eurasia is "the world's least free subregion," the latest report from Freedom House on the state of global freedom claims, pointing the finger at regimes in Russia and Central Asia that have clamped down on opposition in response to the events of the Arab Spring.

While the number of countries ranked as "Free" in 2012 was 90, a gain of three over the previous year, 27 countries showed significant declines, compared with notable gains in just 16, according to "Freedom in the World 2013", the annual report on the state of global freedom from the largely US state-funded Freedom House.

This is the seventh consecutive year that "Freedom in the World" has shown more declines than gains worldwide. Furthermore, the findings reflect a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organisations and independent media, the report says.

Among the most striking gains for freedom was Libya, which advanced from "Not Free" to "Partly Free" and registered one of the most substantial one-year numerical improvements in the report's nearly 40-year history. Burma and a number of African countries, including Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Lesotho, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, also saw major advances. However, noteworthy declines were recorded for several countries, including Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

The problem with Vladimir

The return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency ushered in a new period of accelerated repression, Freedom House claims. "With Russia setting the tone, Eurasia (consisting of the countries of the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states) now rivals the Middle East as one of the most repressive areas on the globe. Indeed, Eurasia is in many respects the worlds least free subregion, given the entrenchment of autocrats in most of its 12 countries," the report insists.

In particular, Freedom House suggests that the events of the Arab Spring have rattled the regimes in Eurasia, promoting a clampdown on opposition movements. A "number of regions experienced setbacks due to a hardened and increasingly shrewd authoritarian response to these movements," the report says.

"Especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change," explains Arch Puddington, Freedom House vice president for research. "Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians... They are flexible; they distort and abuse the legal framework; they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda."

However, improvements were also noted in several CEE countries, including Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia, as well as in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the latter of which moved from "Not Free" to "Partly Free."

Unsurprisingly, Putin is firmly in the Freedom House sights. "Since his inauguration in May," the report insists, "Putin has moved in a calculated way to stifle independent political and civic activity, pushing through a series of laws meant to restrict public protest, limit the work of NGOs, and inhibit free expression on the internet."

That trend is also reflected across other former Soviet states, according to Freedom House, which laments that "authoritarian temptation poses a threat even in Eurasian countries with recent histories of dynamic, if erratic, democratic governance."

"Thus Ukraine suffered a decline for a second year due to the politically motivated imprisonment of opposition leaders, flawed legislative elections, and a new law favoring the Russian-speaking portion of the population," the report notes. "In Central Asia, Tajikistan's civil liberties rating declined due to a military operation in GornoBadakhshan, which resulted in scores of deaths, extrajudicial killings, and a media crackdown. Kazakhstan's media environment deteriorated in the wake of a crackdown on labor unrest in late 2011, with authorities banning opposition newspapers and blocking opposition websites and social media."

However, the effects of the recent unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is not restricted to former Soviet states, Freedom House suggests. Turkey's increasingly acerbic government is putting civil liberties at risk, the report notes. "During his early years in power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed through important reforms that enshrined civilian rule, enhanced fairness at the polls, and made halting steps toward greater minority rights," the report reads. "More recently, however, his government has jailed hundreds of journalists, academics, opposition party officials, and military officers in a series of prosecutions aimed at alleged conspiracies against the state and Kurdish organizations. Turkey currently leads the world in the number of journalists behind bars, and democracy advocates are expressing deep concern for the state of press freedom and the rule of law."

Not for the first time in such reports, what praise there is remains reserved for the closest US allies in the region. The most notable progress was seen in Georgia, Freedom House decides, with the country earning improvement in its political rights rating after the opposition Georgian Dream party won competitive parliamentary elections late last year. "The vote led to an orderly and democratic transfer of power, the first in the nation's history, and the campaign featured more pluralistic media coverage," the report claims, before noting that several officials from the new administration's predecessor have been arrested, "prompting claims of a political witch hunt."

"Armenia's political rights rating rose due to peaceful parliamentary elections in May, which rebalanced the decline stemming from the violent aftermath of the 2008 presidential vote," the NGO also points out.

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