Freedom House accuses Russia of leading Eurasia's "rupture with democracy"

By bne IntelliNews June 12, 2014

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The crisis in Ukraine has underlined the growing ideological divide between the countries of the post-Soviet sphere and the new democracies in Emerging Europe, though this has been happening for a decade, according to the Washington-based democratic watchdog Freedom House.

"The fault line between these two regions has been deepening for many years, and Russia’s malign influence on the governance practices of its neighbors was rising long before the invasion of Crimea," says Freedom House in its "Nations in Transit 2014" report released June 12.

Of the 29 countries assessed in 2013, 13 were rated as democracies, six as transitional regimes, and ten as authoritarian regimes. As in every year for the past 10 years, the average democracy score declined in 2013, with 16 countries suffering downgrades, five improving, and eight not registering any score change.

As to who is the guilty party in this process, Freedom House is in no doubt. "The events of 2013 show that the regime in Russia as a role model for other authoritarian leaders, even in states where the authorities already surpass their Russian counterparts in institutionalized brutality and intolerance," says Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, project director of the report. "Ten years ago, one in five people in Eurasia lived under Consolidated Authoritarian rule, as defined in the report. Today, it's nearly four in five, and the trend is accelerating."

Emerging Europe did not escape the glare of Freedom House, with the NGO pointing out that Estonia is the only EU member state in Central Europe whose independent media rating has not declined in the last decade. "Nations in Transit 2014" finds that setbacks to democratic governance is the dominant trend across Eurasia and the Balkans, as well as in post-communist Central Europe, where clientelism and corruption persisted throughout the past year.

However, the report noted last year also brought some positive developments. Kosovo, Albania, and Georgia received better ratings due to improved elections and peaceful transfers of power. "The most encouraging trend of 2013 was the vocal civil society response to repressive or inadequate governance,” says Habdank-Kolaczkowska. "Civil society spoke up only in Ukraine but also in Central Europe, Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser degree, the Balkans."


The Ukrainian crisis has been the most dramatic manifestation of Russia return to some of its Soviet habits; perceiving that he had lost Ukraine to the EU and possibly even Nato, Putin chose to take the only option he thought still open to him – the military one.

By annexing Crimea, launching Russian military exercises on Ukraine's border and fuelling insurrection and armed sedition in Ukraine's eastern provinces, Putin has sparked talk of a new Cold War and worse. The resulting crisis is the most serious since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but has also had a major impact on democracy in Russia as the Kremlin stokes nationalism and takes evermore stricter measures over civil society and the media to ensure control.

Putin was already tightening the Kremlin's control prior to the Ukrainian conflict, following his re-election as president in 2012 in reaction to the first anti-government street protests that kicked off in December 2011.

Anti-protest laws have been beefed up and examples made of past protestors: charges were filed against 28 individuals for demonstrating on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6 2012, the day before Putin’s inauguration, and many of those individuals remained entangled in the legal system during 2013, mostly on charges of resisting or assaulting the police. Attendance at protests has fallen dramatically since 2011. During the height of the Ukraine affair in the middle of May, the Russian government quietly passed new laws that bring in tougher punishments for people involved in riots and imposing life sentences for various "terrorist" crimes that have been used by the authorities against political opponents and demonstrators.

Likewise, the so-called anti-gay propaganda laws have been extended that play to the conservative sentiments of much of the population and so bolster Putin's image as the moral leader of the country and highlight a stark contrast with the liberal opposition's adherence to the more permissive liberal European values.

More worryingly, the Kremlin has continued to clamp down on the media and the internet especially, passing new repressive laws that will in effect make bloggers accountable to the government for their content, among other things. And the persecution of NGOs with ties to the West continued, albeit it in a low-key manner.

The danger is that other countries in the region are following Putin's lead and exacerbating the growing divide between east and west as countries are forced to take sides in the West vs Russian showdown. "This crackdown in Russia established a pattern for the surrounding region, where country after country in 2013 took up antidemocratic innovations that were pioneered by Moscow," Habdank-Kolaczkowska concludes.

And this extends even to countries that are nominally pro-Europe and queuing up to sign off on the EU's Association Agreement in July. Moldova passed a law that banned the promotion of “relationships other than those linked to marriage and the family,” but later succumbed to EU pressure to remove the worst homophobic clauses.

This trend highlights Russia's importance to the region. The EBRD has already identified Russia as a crucial "investment node" in the region affecting the economic fate of the countries around it. However, less widely acknowledged is Moscow's importance in setting policies: many countries in the region have follow Moscow's lead in both the good (such as creating sovereign wealth funds or making capital market reforms) as well as the bad (Ukraine copied Russia's "foreign agent" law targeting NGOs that receive money from abroad in the last months of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych regime). "Even in states where government and law enforcement already surpass their Russian counterparts in institutionalized brutality and intolerance, the Kremlin’s legislation has served as an inspiration," Habdank-Kolaczkowska writes.

While the report highlights Russia's revanchist development, it misses the fact that most Russians are increasingly complicit in this return to Soviet-style rule.

A string of recent polls found that nostalgia for the Soviet Union is rising fast, the popularity of the opposition leaders has tumbled, the number of Russians who believe the country is going in the "right direction" is rising and finally that the desire to protest has fallen to an historic post-Soviet low. All these trends are encapsulated in Putin's personal popularity with voters, which has soared to an all-time high of more than 85%.

These polls suggest that the Russian population is currently somewhat intoxicated by Russia's show of power and are more interested in Russian prestige and a return towards its lost super-power status than they are in the principles and values of a liberal democracy. It is a choice they may come to regret when the euphoria resulting from Russia's recent international posing fades and the population's attention returns to the stagnating economy.


The Russian crackdown on independent civil society, restrictions on the media and the internet, as well as gay rights, has set an example for former Soviet countries.

Two of the many Russian innovations such as the law requiring civic groups to register as "foreign agents" and the law against "gay propaganda" received serious consideration in Kyrgyzstan. Similar talk took place in Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia.

Russia served as an inspiration for Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan where government and law-enforcement already surpass the Russian counterparts in "institutionalised brutality and intolerance", the report says. Both countries adopted legislation similar to Russia's "foreign agents" law. Freedom House describes Azerbaijan as a country that has the democracy rating of a "deeply entrenched Central Asian dictatorship" with less freedom of assembly or expression than Tajikistan and more corruption than Kazakhstan, which was rapped in the report for the "broad extralegal enforcement" of its already draconian law on religious activity using "extremism" charges.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which persistently end up at the bottom of various democracy indices, again received the worst possible ratings on most indicators in Freedom House's report.

Kyrgyzstan received praise as the only country in Central Asia that has seen a greater opening up for civil society and the media, while still suffering from the dominance of the presidency, unstable and undisciplined legislature, and an unprofessional judiciary.

Apart from Kyrgyzstan, Georgia is only other country in Eurasia whose ratings have improved in the past few years, largely thanks to free and fair elections in 2012 and 201,3 and important amendments to the media law, Freedom House says in the report.

Central Europe

While Freedom House noted that democratization trends in Central Europe "are more nuanced, and certainly less dire, than in Eurasia", nevertheless the NGO was scathing that the ratings of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 have declined, rather than improved, since accession. "The role of money in politics, the pliability of judicial institutions, and economically weakening media sectors all raise concerns about the durability of democratic gains," says the report.

In 2013, the only country to register a net improvement was Romania, one of the region’s poorer performers, whose national government returned to normalcy after a presidential impeachment attempt and related disruptions in 2012.

Hungary is again a particular focus of Freedom House's ire; its ratings have declined for the sixth year in a row, and the country came close to falling out of the category of Consolidated Democracies. "In Hungary, abuse in public-procurement practices, to the benefit of business groups and communities that are loyal to the government, became increasingly obvious in 2013," the report notes. "After a scandal over reports that the nationalization of Hungary’s tobacco industry had deliberately favored some local allies of the ruling party, the government made its freedom of information law more restrictive."

Yet Freedom House notes that corruption worsened across Central Europe, with the Czech Republic, Hungary and even Poland – the darling of the investment community due to its relatively strong economy – all registering downgrades. "Although the system of institutions tasked with combating graft in Poland is well developed and efficient, a steady accumulation of new cases over several years suggests that public figures are undeterred by the prospect of punishment," the report notes.

Economic and political pressures also resulted in ratings declines in the Independent Media category for Estonia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. In 2013, Lithuania received its second media down-grade in three years after the authorities raided the offices of the Baltic News Service in Vilnius, confiscating computers and interrogating journalists about a leaked government document that implied Russia was trying to discredit the Lithuanian president… In the Czech republic, the concentration of major print dailies in the hands of two business magnates, one of whom fared well in the 2013 general elections, points to growing ties between business, politics, and the media. The election campaign also featured attempts to curb editorial freedom at the public television broadcaster."

Southeast Europe

Slovenia is a standout example for the region, as the best performer on the Nations in Transit index, slightly ahead of Estonia. The country maintained its position despite the corruption allegations that helped bring down the government of former prime minister Janez Jansa, who was later convicted of bribe-taking.

Mass protests also brought down the government of Bulgarian PM Boiko Borisov in 2013, and accusations of government corruption have continued to dog the subsequent centre left government.

Other countries of the former Yugoslavia are making “only fitful progress” on Nations in Transit’s democratization indicators. Unlike Slovenia, none are rated as consolidated democratic regimes (the top category on the index), although Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, along with Bulgaria and Romania, are in the second category of semi-consolidated democracies.

However, Freedom House points out the positive influence of the EU within the Balkan region, with “the prospect of membership arguably serving as the single greatest motivation for democratic behavior and reform in these countries.” The report reveals that the Balkans is the only region surveyed in the report to have made improvements in civil society over the last decade.

2013 was a turning point for three countries – Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. The EU-brokered April 2013 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo saw Kosovo give greater autonomy to its Serb autonomy while Serbia recognized Pristina’s authority – despite failing to recognise Kosovan independence – in predominantly Serb areas. The deal makes it possible for both countries to move towards EU accession. Freedom House also raised its rating for Albania for the first time since 2008 following the country’s “flawed but competitive” June 2013 parliamentary elections.

The prospect of EU integration has also had a positive impact on Moldova, which in 2013 first passed and later reversed a law banning the promotion of “relationships other than those linked to marriage and the family”, under pressure from the EU. “As in Ukraine, the back and forth reflected an ongoing tug of war between forces seeking European integration and those that identify with or serve as proxies for Moscow,” the report says.

At the same time, there were setbacks for both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Freedom House lowered Macedonia to its “transitional/hybrid” category following clampdowns on press freedom. Bosnia is also paralysed by political crisis. “It is increasingly clear that the country’s politicians are unwilling or unable to compromise for the sake of achieving either short- or long-term goals, even those that they claim to share,” the report says.


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