Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine deepens divide between autocracies and democracies

Only a sustained push for democratic progress across Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia will reverse the damage of the past two decades and deliver a free and prosperous future for this region, says a new report.

For the 19th consecutive year, democratic governance suffered an overall decline in the region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, according to the latest edition of Nations in Transit, an annual report from Freedom House.  

As Moscow pursued its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, autocrats persisted in their domestic assault on the remaining vestiges of institutional independence in the media, local governance, and especially civil society. Democracy scores declined in 11 out of the 29 countries included in the report, while seven countries saw improvements.  

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania continued to receive the best scores in the coverage area. Along with Slovakia, Czechia and Slovenia, they remain the only consolidated democracies in the region.  

Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Poland are ranked as semi-consolidated democracies. 

At the other end of the scale, Tajikistan joined Turkmenistan in receiving the report’s lowest possible score. Azerbaijan ranked only slightly above Tajikistan and Turkmenistan but still below Russia and Belarus, although its south Caucasus neighbour and longtime foe, Armenia, continued to make democratic progress in 2022 and was the only country in the report to improve on multiple indicators.  

In Ukraine, the government and people confirmed their commitment to democracy even as the buildings housing their institutions remain under literal fire from Russia. The country’s robust civil society organisations continued to hold the authorities accountable to ensure political rights and civil liberties would not be weakened by the ongoing emergency.  

Although still classified as a hybrid regime or transitional government along with peer EU candidates Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania, Ukraine’s score did not backslide or otherwise change in 2022. 

Russia itself suffered its largest single-year score decline in the history of the report due to a dramatic wave of repression aimed at domestic antiwar speech. The Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine represent the gravest challenge to peace, freedom, and democracy in Europe since the end of the Cold War, the report finds.  

“Vladimir Putin’s brutal, unprovoked war of conquest in Ukraine has seriously endangered democratisation efforts and widened political fissures in the surrounding area,” says Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.   

“It is now more critical than ever for democratic partners in Europe and around the world to redouble their solidarity and support. Ukrainians have mounted a valiant defence on the battlefield, but their sacrifices must not be squandered.   

“Only a sustained push for democratic progress across Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia will reverse the damage of the past two decades and deliver a free and prosperous future for this region.”  

Autocracies become more autocratic

Nations in Transit analyses the state of democratic governance in 29 countries and categorises each by its regime type.   

Of the eight countries classified as consolidated authoritarian regimes—settings where autocrats prevent political competition and pluralism through widespread violations of basic rights—six suffered declines in their already abysmal democracy scores: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  

Most of these declines were related to crackdowns on dissent in which governments abandoned their core obligation to protect citizens’ physical safety and security. Uzbekistan’s government used force to violently put down protests in Karakalpakstan over the president’s plans to revoke the region’s autonomous status and right to secede. Tajikistan also used violence to quash protests in the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan.  

Karakalpakstan and Gorno-Badakhshan are home to ethnic Karakalpak and Pamiri minorities respectively, and the report laments, “autonomous local governance has historically been Central Asia’s most stable indicator in Nations in Transit, as decades-old allowances for self-rule by ethnic minority populations survived in some modest form while other checks and balances were obliterated”. Last year saw this local governance explicitly threatened.  

The report also finds that politics in the Western Balkans have often been dominated by self-serving elites who exclude the voices of civil society and hinder democratic reforms. In addition, long-strained relations between Serbia and Kosovo have continued to undermine democratic progress in both countries.   

In the European Union’s southeast, meanwhile, the threat posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine did little to shake member states out of their chronic partisan turmoil. Instead, a pattern of “stable instability” persisted in Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria.  

Poland’s slide interrupted

The most notable change in the group of EU member states over the past year was a divergence in the democracy score trends of the decade’s two most precipitous decliners: Hungary and Poland.   

Poland under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party and Hungary under prime minister Viktor Orbán and his illiberal Fidesz party had worsened in tandem until 2022, when Poland democratic backsliding was interrupted even as Hungary’s continued. 

Fidesz’s antidemocratic machinations were in full view last year as irregularities, abuses of administrative resources, and media distortions resulted in another supermajority for the Fidesz-led coalition in parliamentary elections. The government backed smear campaigns targeting critical NGOs and members of the National Judicial Council—considered to be Hungary’s last reserve of judicial independence. 

In Poland, however, a PiS victory in upcoming parliamentary elections is much less certain. The PiS government continues to violate democratic norms—the Ministry of Education and Science awarded grants to foundations with close ties to the party and no track record of educational activities—but elections in Poland are less consolidated and more competitive than those in Hungary. 

Whether or not Polish voters punish or reward PiS’s illiberal governing tendencies remains to be seen.

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