29.05.23 Review

Eurasian backslide: democracy has declined in former socialist countries for the 19th consecutive year

The degradation of democracy has continued in the countries of the former socialist bloc and the former Soviet Union for the 19th consecutive year, according to Freedom House's ‘Nations in Transit’ report. In 2022, the situation deteriorated in 11 and improved in 7 out of 29 countries in the macro-region, which includes Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and post-Soviet countries. Authoritarian regimes have increased direct violence and repression, increasingly abandoning elements of imitation democracy, and Russia's democracy rating has made the most significant drop in its post-Soviet history. For the region's hybrid states, an increasing problem is the lack of realistic prospects for EU membership, which has weakened pro-European reform coalitions and reinforced pro-authoritarian and nepotistic ones. Anti-liberal tendencies in Eastern Europe have remained strong in Hungary and Poland, but have receded somewhat in Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

The democracy situation has deteriorated across the entire macro-region of postsocialist and post-Soviet countries for the 19th consecutive year, according to Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit report. Across the region, in 2022, a year marked by war, the gap between autocracies and democracies widened, with democracy scores dropping in 11 of the 29 countries in the group and improving in seven. The median democracy ranking of the Eastern European countries (5.38) and the Balkan countries (3.79) remained virtually unchanged, while that of the post-Soviet countries in the region decreased by 0.7 points (from 1.34 to 1.27).

In six of the eight countries in the macro-region classified by Freedom House analysts as consolidated authoritarian regimes, already poor democracy indicators have deteriorated over the past year. Russia witnessed the greatest drop, with its score dropping from 1.32 in the last report to 1.11 this year, amid a crackdown on dissent, the fight against war protests, a crackdown on repression and the further deterioration of state institutions. This is the country’s sharpest annual drop in the entire post-Soviet period of its history.

Belarus (1.18 to 1.11), Kazakhstan (1.36 to 1.32), Tajikistan (1.11 to 1.04), Uzbekistan (1.25 to 1.21) and Kyrgyzstan (1.75 to 1.68) also saw drops in their ratings. Turkmenistan which has the lowest possible score (1, i.e. 0% democracy) and Azerbaijan (1.07, i.e. 1% democracy) did not change their positions in the report at all, probably because their scores cannot get any worse. In Turkmenistan, for example, a (somewhat tragicomic) history of hereditary presidential succession unfolded last year, which would probably have had an impact on the rankings had the scale been wider.

The authors of the report note that widespread state violence — both against protestors and incarcerated citizens — was a hallmark of the authoritarian regimes whose scores deteriorated last year.The main trend in recent times has not only been a tendency for regimes to further tighten the screws, but they have also abandoned elements of imitative democracy. While some of these countries used to fall into the category of semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes, this is the second year in a row that this category has remained empty. Over the past two decades, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan have dropped the 'semi' prefix. On the other hand, since 2004 Armenia, Kosovo and Moldova have been able to move in the opposite direction, rising in the ranking to the status of hybrid regimes.

Moscow's actions are encouraging other authoritarian rulers in the region, and indeed around the world, to normalise practices of brutal and inhumane violence and outright suppression of human rights.

Deteriorating democracy indicators have also been recorded in Hungary, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovakia and Georgia over the past year. Nepotism is considered a major problem in the Western Balkans. In order to maintain political and economic power, self-serving elites have diluted democratic institutions and stifled the voices of civil society. There is a growing gap in public opinion in the countries of Eastern Europe, and especially in the Balkans, between the share of those who believe EU membership is beneficial for the country and the share of those who see it as likely in the foreseeable future. This, in turn, has weakened reformist and pro-European coalitions in these countries and has consequently increased the chances of nepotistic regimes gaining a foothold in power. A typical example of this, as Re: Russia has previously discussed, has been seen in Georgia.

That said, according to the estimates of Freedom House, Ukraine has managed to maintain its previously achieved level of democracy even in the face of the Russian invasion and incredible levels of violence from the aggressor. Its rating has remained at 3.36, which corresponds in Freedom House's classification to the hybrid regime category. The authorities have gone to some lengths to curtail media freedom in order to reduce the damage from propaganda disseminated by Moscow and pro-Russian propaganda, but Ukraine's strong civil society has managed to exercise effective control over the activities of elected officials, according to the Freedom House experts.

Level of democracy in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, 2005-2023

The regression of democratisation in the macro-region is linked not only to the strengthening of post-Soviet authoritarianism, but also to the deterioration of democratisation in Eastern Europe and the Balkans due to the success of nationalist populism. The Freedom House analysts note that, over the course of the past year, a divergence has been observed among this group of countries: while democracy continued to decline in Hungary and illiberalism strengthened in Poland, illiberal leaders were defeated in elections in Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Since 1996 Freedom House has independently analysed data on democracy in the post-Soviet and post-socialist countries of the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. The Freedom House democracy ranking classifies countries on a scale of 1 to 7 (where 1 represents the worst score) according to seven indicators: democratic governance, electoral processes, civil sector development, media independence, local government, judicial independence and corruption. Based on the aggregate rating, the authors of the report categorise each country as one of five types of political regime: consolidated democracy (rating 5.01-7), semi-consolidated democracy (4.01-5), transitional, or hybrid regime (3.01-4), semi-consolidated (2.01-3) or consolidated authoritarian regime (1.01-2). Ratings are formed by polling experts. Despite constant criticism of the rankings, the fact that they have been compiled since 1973 makes them a unique source of data on political dynamics in the world over the past 50 years. Re: Russia has already written about the general conclusions of this year's 50th anniversary Freedom House report.