On June 23rd Freedom House—an independent democracy and human rights watchdog organization—released its annual Nations in Transit report. Nations in Transit (NIT) studies the state of democratization in 29 countries from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The NIT is also one of the few highly respectable and reliable quantitative measures of democracy, which for 20 years now has served as an important point of reference for scholars and organizations all over the world. FPRI’s own Project on Democratic Transitions relies heavily upon Freedom House’s NIT measurements for its research and publications.
Freedom House’s findings shed further bad news about the state of democracy in Eurasia this year. The title of the 2015 report warns that “Democracy is on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia.” As the report’s project director Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska states in its executive summary:
When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only three countries—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes.” Since 2000, however, the number of such regimes has more than doubled, and Eurasia’s average democracy score has fallen from 5.4 to 6.03 on a 7-point scale.
Looking back at the post-communist world 20 years ago, it is impossible to believe that the region is more authoritarian now than it was during the era of failed states, rampant corruption, and civil wars. But while the region is better off today than it was in the 1990s, it is no secret that 20 years ago the democracy-promotion community exercised an excessive amount of wishful thinking when it dealt with the countries of post-communist Eurasia. This wishful thinking often refused to acknowledge that there was no actual “democratization” happening in some of those states, labeling them as “slow democratizers,” “would be democracies,” or “nascent democracies.” In the early 2000s, when these “slow democratizers” never democratized, the democracy-promotion community had to finally come to terms with the reality and adjust its “labeling system.” This is why Georgia, for example, practically a failed state throughout the 1990s, continued to receive the same NIT democracy scores throughout the 2000s as it did in the late 1990s, although it had become a rapid and successful reformer.
That said, even with today’s sober approach to understanding democratic transitions, the recent regression in post-communist Europe and Eurasia is obvious to people who closely examine the region. As Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska says, “Over the last 10 years in particular, authoritarian leaders who paid lip service to democratic reform have systematized their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretense of inclusive politics.”
Alarming Key Findings
The key findings for this year’s NIT are alarming to say the least:
Russia has earned its largest ratings decline in a decade, “as the Kremlin stepped up suppression of dissent at home while seeking to destabilize the new government in Ukraine.”
Hungary completely fell out of the category of “consolidated democracies.” It is now considered a semi-consolidated democracy—joining EU newcomers (relative to Hungary)—Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, to name a few, who have long belonged in this category.
Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus continue to be in dire conditions under consolidated authoritarian rule. Azerbaijan in particular has experienced serious backsliding as the Aliyev regime has become unapologetic about punishing dissent and resorting to severe human rights abuses to avoid opposition.
We have also seen the fear of Russian propaganda translate into government actions limiting the voice of free media in the Baltics—previously frontrunners in securing media freedom. “Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania struggled to come up with adequate responses to Russia’s propaganda onslaught,” resorting to unorthodox approaches to solving the problem, like banning some of the Russian propaganda TV channels.
Hard Questions, Impossible Answers
To honor of the release of the NIT 2015, Freedom House held a panel discussion on June 23rd. The panel, moderated by NPR’s David Greene, included Will Englund (Washington Post), Tim Judah (The Economist), and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska (Freedom House). Some of the major themes of the discussion included the rise of Russia as a major aggressor in the region, the strength and impact of its propaganda machine, and the decline in democracy’s popularity as people are increasingly more willing to choose stable authoritarianism over “freedom” in anarchy (as we have seen in many of the Arab uprising countries).
The conditions for democratic consolidation are less than favorable in today’s Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Approximately 80 percent of Eurasia lives under some form of authoritarian rule. Russia has quickly moved away from its role as an important ally to the West and is now a dangerous aggressor. Hungary is no longer a consolidated democracy. Previously pioneers of democracy, the Visegrad Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) are now facing major internal struggles. Euroskepticism within the EU is combined with uncertainty over economic conditions and serves to weaken the EU’s image abroad. Its decision-making mechanisms are complex and inefficient, preventing it from taking a strong stand against authoritarian pushback. To the question of what the EU can do to avoid further regression in Hungary, Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska said that the EU’s options are limited as it does not have too many tools in-between doing nothing and resorting to expulsion. Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska added that watching Hungary regress so quickly after so much initial democratic progress is “demoralizing”. While it had been slowly regressing for the past seven years, even five years ago no one questioned Hungary’s democratic aspirations. Today it is no longer a consolidated democracy. Moreover, its regression is showing diffusion effects on Slovakia where we may soon see the same type of regression.
The panelists added that just as alarming is the rapid regression in Azerbaijan. The regime has become more and more intolerant of criticism and impervious to international pressures. Azerbaijan enjoys the privileges of being an ally to Europe and the US. Whether it is politicians going on very expensive holidays to Baku or Lady Gaga performing at the Olympic games, the West’s actions towards Azerbaijan have only served to further legitimize the corrupt Alyev regime. For economic and strategic reasons the West is not doing much about its regression, and this is in turn leading to a dramatically negative shift in Azerbaijan. The situation is reminiscent of Kazakhstan, but the Aliyev regime in Azerbiajan has enjoyed a lot more “success” in openly practicing authoritarianism while also enjoying the West’s support.
Mr. Englund, a long-time Russia reporter, expressed concerns over Putin’s success at giving human rights a bad name. For many Russians it is a concept mostly viewed as a decadent western ideal that has nothing to do with them. The discussants also expressed their concerns over the decreasing popularity of democratic values and the growing support for authoritarianism as a means to stability. Since the dramatic failures of the Arab uprisings, the Eurasia region has seen a rise in the “fetishization” of stability, which is now a lynchpin to most authoritarian regimes. The pragmatic voters are choosing the “known evil” over the unknown one in fear of ending up in a Syria-like scenario, believing that “the alternative is worse.” In this vein, the discussants stressed the need for combating this narrative by ensuring that Ukraine’s transition becomes a successful one. If the West is to support Ukraine’s democratization, its economic stability and territorial integrity, the results will speak for themselves; this will be an outcome more powerful than anything RT (formally known as “Russia Today”) may be propagating.
While there was consensus on the importance of the West supporting Ukraine and ensuring its success and stability, many of Mr. Greene’s hard questions were often met with brief, inconclusive responses, not due to the discussants’ incompetence, but due to the daunting nature of the questions. Is it ok to restrict media freedoms in order to control Russian media propaganda (i.e., the recent case of the Baltics)? How do we respond to the rise of authoritarianism that is flourishing at the expense of democracy’s popularity? What do we do about the rampant human rights abuses throughout our strategic partner states in Central Asia? How do we deal with the weakened EU? Are we to simply come to terms with the fact that some countries, like Ukraine, will always be “stuck in the middle,” serving as “buffer zones” between Russia and the EU? If we cannot fight to promote democratic values in a country, and if we are to accept that some countries are always going to be caught in the middle, what are we doing talking about them? These were some of Mr. Greene’s panic-inducing questions that left the audience pondering long after the event was over.
Perhaps in a way, the ambiguities of this discussion reflect the current state of mind in Washington; democracy is in serious trouble: not only are the Western liberal values losing global support, but even basic human rights and freedoms are being violated on a regular basis. We are in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian pushback in Europe and Eurasia, and the new and fragile democracies that the West invested in so heavily are now at risk. We have plenty of tools to carefully study and understand these problems, take Freedom House’s excellent NIT report as one example, but we are unsure as to what exactly our role and responsibility may be in resolving these problems going forward.
The good news is that if these are the questions on the minds of FPRI’s readers, one needs to go no further than its Project on Democratic Transitions. For the past 10 years we have dedicated our time and efforts to analyzing what the West can do to help spread democracy, what it has done in the past, how successful its efforts have been, what lessons can be learned from our previous successes and failures in assisting democracy abroad, and when, where, and how it can be done better in the future. These are some of the questions that our October 2014 conference dealt with at length, and our forthcoming (Winter 2016) book entitled “Does Democracy Matter?” will explore in greater detail.