Future of Emerging Europe’s hybrid regimes hangs in the balance

Future of Emerging Europe’s hybrid regimes hangs in the balance
Protesters against the controversial foreign agents bill in Georgia, classed as Freedom House as an 'autocratising hybrid'. / bne IntelliNews
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow April 23, 2024

The future of the 11 Emerging European states classified as ‘hybrid regimes’ by the Freedom House hangs in the balance, said research analysts from the influential NGO in a webinar on April 19. 

With countries from the region, that stretches from Central Europe to Central Asia, increasingly polarised between democracies and authoritarian states, it is unclear in which direction the hybrid regimes – which fall between the two camps – will go in. 

Moreover, warned Freedom House analysts, there are visible efforts by authoritarian regimes, notably Russia, to pull hybrid regimes into the authoritarian camp. 

A hybrid regime, as defined by the NGO, is one that has a mix of autocratic and democratic features. 

“Decades of deteriorating norms and institutions have profoundly reshaped the region, widening the gulf between those nations that are committed to the principles of liberal democracy and those that overtly reject it,” Mike Smeltzer, senior research analyst at Freedom House, told the webinar organised by Freedom House and the Central European University (CEU). 

The wars in Ukraine and Nagorno Karabakh “have accelerated the geopolitical reordering in the region, with these countries sorting themselves into two blocs: the transatlantic communities on the one hand and the entrenched autocrats on the other,” Smeltzer added. 

“This is hugely consequential for the 11 countries we class as hybrid – they are caught between these two camps, and it’s very clear there is no third option for them … They will have to choose.” 

Democracy in decline 

Freedom House research analysts sounded the alarm shortly after the release of its latest annual report on the region. 

The report, "Nations in Transit 2024: A Region Reordered by Autocracy and Democracy”, highlights how recent events, notably Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and the Azerbaijani regime’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023, have accelerated a profound geopolitical reordering in the region.

This year marks the 20th consecutive year of democratic decline, as per the findings of the report. Out of the 29 countries under scrutiny, 10 experienced declines in their overall democracy score, while only five showed improvements. 

This decline, Smeltzer said, has been driven by a "complex combination of country specific events and broader region causes – from abusive policymaking, to manipulated elections, to manipulation and degradation of civil society and independent media.” 

The intensifying onslaught on basic rights and liberties by authoritarian regimes has led to a growing divide, with nations aligning themselves either with a liberal, democratic order or with regimes vehemently opposed to it.

“Authoritarian regimes are stepping up their attacks and undermining democratic governance across the region,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, on the release of the report on April 11. 

“In Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh, we’ve already seen the devastating consequences of authoritarian expansion, and there’s no reason to believe it will stop there. Unless democracies act urgently and consistently to uphold their own interests and values, more territory will be lost to dictatorship and repression.”

Polar opposites

The report identifies eight countries classified as consolidated authoritarian regimes, where autocrats stifle political competition and pluralism through widespread violations of basic rights.

Among them, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan witnessed declines in their already extremely low democracy scores, as assigned by Freedom House. According to the NGO, these regimes not only quash dissent but also actively support each other’s efforts to evade sanctions, suppress opposition and evade accountability for their transgressions.

“These countries not only resisted great wave of democratisation at the end of the Cold War but actively intensified their repression and worked to thwart the democratisation efforts elsewhere, including in many of the hybrid regimes,” said Smeltzer. 

He also pointed to collaboration among authoritarian regimes, such as Russia’s support for regimes in Belarus and Kazakhstan when they were threatened by mass protests. 

“As democracies have struggled to work together and push back on authoritarianism … the world’s autocrats really cooperate with each other to advance shared goals,” Smeltzer told the webinar. 

At the other end of the scale are the six countries classed as consolidated democracies, and a further four semi-consolidated democracies. The countries with the highest democracy scores in the region, on a scale of 1 to 7, are Estonia (6.00), Latvia (5.79) and Slovenia (5.79).

Democracies accounted for four of the five improvements in democracy scores in the region during 2023. 

“2023 was another year of steady progress for our democratic states. Their response to this geopolitical moment was to continue to shore up democratic institutions,” said Alexandra Karppi, research analyst at Freedom House. 

Caught in the middle 

Between these two extremes are the 11 hybrid regimes. For the most part, they are geographically concentrated in the southeast of the European continent – from the Western Balkans through Ukraine and Moldova to the South Caucasus – and almost all are aspiring members of the European Union at varying stages in the accession process. 

The exception is Hungary in Central Europe, an EU member but one that has experienced the largest score decline of any country in the region over the past 20 years. It was downgraded from a semi-consolidated democracy to a hybrid/transitional regime in 2019 – the only EU country not classed by Freedom House as a democracy. 

Of the 11 countries classified as hybrid regimes, five experienced an overall decline in their democracy scores. Ukraine was the only one to improve, pointed out the report. 

Karppi pointed out that while the hybrid regimes have many things in common, they are responding very differently to the geopolitical shifts currently underway. Accordingly, Freedom House has started to sub-divide them into three categories – autocratising hybrids, democratising hybrids and those not making clear progress in either direction. 

“What this [geopolitical] reordering has done for hybrid regimes where institutions are particularly vulnerable, is its increasingly forcing governments to make a choice – are you going to head towards one pole or another,” she told the webinar. 

“Unfortunately it seems for the Western Balkans, which accounted for much of the decline this year, the choice  increasingly is democratic decline if not being headed towards autocracy.” 

Among all 29 Emerging European countries, Serbia experienced the largest decline in this year’s report due to fraudulent elections, media capture and waning judicial independence. 

By contrast, Ukraine earned the largest score improvement in this year’s report. The gains in Ukraine resulted from the government’s progress in building up judicial and anticorruption institutions and actively investigating graft, including in the military.

Hope for the future 

Despite the broad and long-term trend of democratic decline, the ousting of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland, and the efforts by the new government to restore the rule of law, gives hope that even countries where democracy has been eroded can turn things around.

“While Poland’s score declined due to unprecedented electoral manipulation by the incumbent Law and Justice party during 2023, an opposition coalition managed to secure victory by campaigning on respect for the rule of law and individual rights. Experiences elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe offer valuable lessons for Poland’s democratic recovery under the new government,” said the report

Looking ahead, the report proposes several recommendations for democratic governments to counter authoritarian gains and rejuvenate democracy in the region. These include ensuring support for Ukraine, backing democratic renewal and reform, providing consistent support to aspiring democracies, and standing with human rights defenders.

“The fate of European democracy now depends in large part on the willingness of democratic states to adopt a more active approach to security in the region, most urgently by supporting Ukraine,” said Smeltzer on the launch of the report. 

“Any failure to stand up for democracy during this critical moment will make it more costly to check authoritarian expansion in the future, both in the region and around the world. The United States and Europe must act now to ensure the defeat of Moscow’s invasion and to protect democratic institutions and norms more broadly.”

Since 1995, Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report has been assessing democracy in the region from Central Europe to Central Asia. The 26th edition covers events from January 1 to December 31, 2023.