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Report: Democracy Weakened Across Europe and Eurasia

2018-4-12

The democracy monitoring group Freedom House says governments from Central Europe to Eurasia are showing disrespect for independent agencies and open discussion. It adds that the European Union, or EU, and the United States have little time left to stand up to the area’s anti-democratic forces.

Freedom House released the findings in its latest Nations in Transit report, which is called “Confronting Illiberalism.”

The report defines illiberalism as thinking that rejects the need for independent agencies to monitor the government and dismisses the idea of publicly disagreeing with those in power.

Freedom House said that, in 2017, illiberalism established itself as the ‘new normal’ in the former Soviet Union and some of its allies. The U.S.-based group noted attacks on independent media and government critics in a number of countries. And it observed a never-ending push in some areas to combine the ruling party and the state.

Very dramatic changes

Nate Schenkkan is project director of Nations In Transit for Freedom House. He said his group has been speaking out about these issues for a long time in places like Russia, Central Asia and Belarus.

Schenkkan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that “…increasingly, we see this now in Central Europe, in countries like Hungary and Poland. We see it starting to have an effect at the level of institutions. So, very dramatic changes, especially in Poland," he said.

The report said that 19 out of the 29 nations in the study received lower democracy ratings than last year, the sharpest drop in the project’s 23-year history. It also found that for the second time in two years the number of consolidated authoritarian governments was higher than that of consolidated democracies.

The report said that Turkmenistan was the area’s worst performer for what the report calls “Eurasia’s entrenched autocracies.” An autocracy is a system of government where one person has unlimited powers.

The report identified entrenched autocracies in five other countries. They are Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Russia moving towards authoritarianism

The report said that Russian President Vladimir Putin won reelection last month in a political campaign where he faced no real competition. It said his only real opponent, anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, was barred from being a candidate after he was found guilty of corruption charges. The report questions the believability of the ruling, however.

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny

In addition, the report noted that Russia is facing “economic decay.” It said this has resulted from a lack of structural reforms, its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and international actions against Russia for taking control of the Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan have the area’s highest risk of moving into authoritarianism, the report said.

“The window for fundamental reforms may not have closed in Ukraine,” the report said. But it noted political resistance to anticorruption reforms, attacks on civil society, and the media. As a result, the report said Ukraine’s democracy rating was lower for the first time since 2014.

"It was a relatively small decline, but it was meaningful,” Schenkkan said. He added that the main cause is the pressure leading Ukrainian politicians have put on civil society and independent media.

Largest declines

The report said the weakening of democracy was most striking in two Eastern European countries: Poland and Hungary. It noted the two were successful in separating from authoritative systems in the 1980s.

In 2017, the Polish government passed laws that give the ruling party-controlled parliament more influence in choosing Supreme Court members and other judges. In addition, Hungary passed laws in 2017 to limit the freedom of people to publicly critique the government.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, April 10, 2018.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, April 10, 2018.

Some positive performers

However, not all countries received poor ratings in the new report. It noted progress over the past year in Macedonia and Uzbekistan.

The report has found that since the death of President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has made small, but noticeable improvements in the freedoms of civil society and the media.

In addition, Macedonia formed a new government, Schenkkan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The new leadership has started on a plan to find peace with its neighbors Bulgaria and Greece. Macedonia hopes to eventually be a candidate for EU membership.

Freedom House is a U.S.-government-financed non-government organization. RFE/RL and VOA are each part of the U.S.-government-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors.

I’m Phil Dierking.

Eugene Tomiuc reported this story Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Phil Dierking adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How do you feel your country’s democratic performance is? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

decay - v. to slowly lose strength, health, etc.

decline - v. to become lower in amount or less in number

dramatic - adj. sudden and extreme

confront - v. to oppose or challenge especially in a direct and forceful way

consolidate - v. to join or combine together into one thing

authoritarian - adj. expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws

entrenched - adj. to place (someone or something) in a very strong position that cannot easily be changed

fundamental - adj. forming or relating to the most important part of something

monitor - v. to watch, observe, listen to, or check (something) for a special purpose over a period of time