This statement was originally published on freedomhouse.org on 28 April 2021.
Nations in Transit 2021 finds that leaders across the region are undermining democratic institutions to stay in power.
Elected leaders in Europe and Eurasia are undermining the very institutions that brought them to office, rejecting democratic norms and promoting alternative systems of authoritarian governance, according to Nations in Transit, the annual Freedom House report on the state of democracy in the region.
This year’s edition, Nations in Transit 2021: The Antidemocratic Turn, highlights the extent to which countries like Hungary and Poland, which helped lead the broader transition toward democracy in the 1990s, are showing signs of deepening autocratization. These are not anomalies, but part of a systemic shift toward authoritarianism in Europe and Eurasia that could have global implications. Antidemocratic leaders are learning from one another how to consolidate power and suppress political dissent while avoiding penalties from international institutions.
The overall strength of democracy in the region has declined for 17 consecutive years, according to Nations in Transit, and the number of countries classified as democracies has sunk to its lowest point since the report was first launched in 1995. The leaders who have turned toward antidemocratic forms of governance follow similar strategies: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary pioneered a model for repressing independent media that has since spread to Poland and Serbia, the ruling parties of Hungary and Poland are both escalating attacks on the LGBT+ community as well as ethnic and religious minority groups, and all are attempting to weaken the rule of law through attacks on judicial independence.
Poland and Hungary stand out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade, but the majority of countries evaluated in Nations in Transit are currently worse off than they were 10 years ago.
“The spread of autocracy in Europe and Eurasia has far-reaching implications, not just for the region, but also for the world,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Democratically elected leaders are turning away from democracy and creating their own warped realities to consolidate and retain power. Through their successes so far, these antidemocratic regimes are setting an example and fueling the rise of authoritarianism in neighboring countries. Left unchecked, they have the potential to undermine democracy and legitimize the abuse of power in Europe and beyond.”
In Russia and Belarus, which the report categorizes as consolidated authoritarian regimes, repression intensified considerably over the past year. The violent crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Belarus, the Kremlin’s attempted murder of anticorruption activist and opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, and the Russian military’s recent show of force along the borders of Ukraine demonstrate the lengths to which these regimes are willing to go to stay in power.
Nations in Transit has documented not only the spread of authoritarianism in Europe and Eurasia, but also a decade of struggling efforts at democratic reform. Armenia, which had previously recorded the largest improvement ever measured in the report, has regressed for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, while Kyrgyzstan, which had previously made progress toward democratic governance, returned to strongman rule in 2020.
“The decline of democracy in Europe and Eurasia is deeply troubling, especially in the context of 15 consecutive years of democratic deterioration at the global level,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. “Authoritarianism is not a purely national problem, but one that can spread to infect entire regions and even continents. European democracies and civil society groups must coordinate in support of prodemocracy movements in countries where authoritarianism is gaining ground. Change must come from within, but to give these efforts a chance and stem the antidemocratic tide, European democracies and their partners must take the field, set an example, and overcome the lie that autocracy is a viable alternative to democracy.”
Nations in Transit 2021 assesses the state of democratic governance in 29 countries from Central Europe to Central Asia. The country scores pertain to conditions and developments between January and December 2020.
- There are fewer democracies in Europe and Eurasia than at any point in the 26-year history of Nations in Transit. Of the 29 countries assessed, 10 were rated as democracies, 10 as hybrid regimes, and nine as authoritarian regimes. No countries changed categories this year.
- The average democracy score for the region has declined every year since 2005—17 years in a row. Eighteen countries’ democracy scores declined this year, only six countries’ scores improved, and five countries experienced no net change. The spread of authoritarianism continues to outpace democratic progress by a wide margin.
- The largest declines occurred in Poland (-0.36), which suffered the second-largest single-year drop ever recorded, and in Hungary (-0.25). Both countries’ democracy scores are the lowest they have ever been during the 17-year period of overall decline.
- The most common regime type in Eurasia remains “consolidated authoritarian.” Armenia is the only semiconsolidated authoritarian regime in Eurasia, while Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are the only hybrid/transitional regimes in this subregion. There are no democracies in Eurasia.
- The most common regime type in the Balkans continues to be “hybrid/transitional.” The only exception is Croatia, which is considered a semiconsolidated democracy.
- Despite having suffered the steepest decline over the past decade, Central Europe remains the best-performing subregion; its most common regime type is “consolidated democracy.” Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania are the only semiconsolidated democracies in Central and Eastern Europe; Hungary is the only hybrid/transitional regime.
Setbacks to democratic reform:
- Having made progress toward hybrid/transitional regime status in 2019, Armenia regressed over the past year. This is the first time its democracy has lost ground since the 2018 Velvet Revolution.
- Despite some improvement in the intervening years, Georgia’s democracy has returned to its score from 2011, the last year before the current ruling party replaced an unpopular and increasingly repressive government.
- Kyrgyzstan’s jarring return to strongman rule has left its score slightly lower than in 2010, the year of its last revolution.
- In Ukraine, the government’s reform efforts continued to meet with strong resistance from entrenched interests during 2020, resulting in a democracy score that has remained relatively static since the prodemocracy uprising and Russian invasions of 2014.
Reasons for hope:
- Uzbekistan (+0.11) and North Macedonia (+0.07) experienced the greatest democratic progress in 2020.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina’s democracy score improved for the first time since 2006, owing to a major step forward for local democratic governance: the first municipal elections in the city of Mostar since 2008.
- Latvia and Lithuania, historically high performers in Nations in Transit, improved their democracy scores after three years of decline.
- Slovakia halted two years of democratic decline after voters in 2020 ousted the ruling party, Smer-SD.
- The report’s Civil Society indicator remained relatively strong in many countries, reflecting civil society’s important contributions to democratic resilience across the region.
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Source: MEDIA FEED