Democratic regression in Hungary and Ukraine is raising questions about the vulnerabilities of young democracies in Central and Southeastern Europe, according to the findings of the 2012 Nations in Transit report. Fearing the demonstration effect of the Arab awakening, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan cracked down on independent voices, write Christopher Walker and Sylvana Habdank–Kolaczkowska. But much more worrisome is the “Putinization” of countries that had joined the ranks of established democracies, a trend that demands a fresh look at the growing challenges to democratic consolidation.
The failure of virtually any of the countries of Eurasia to shed old governance habits and end monopolies on political and economic power has been one of the greatest disappointments of the past two decades. Regimes in countries as diverse as
Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Uzbekistan have taken steps—some brutal, others more subtle—to adapt to new circumstances and maintain power. It was widely understood from the outset, however, that these countries faced far steeper climbs toward democratic governance, given their far less enviable starting points, than the former Soviet satellites of Central Europe and the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.
It should therefore be all the more worrisome that the very countries which have achieved the greatest success in the past two decades are now displaying serious vulnerabilities in their still young democratic systems. Over the past five years, Nations in Transit findings have shown a clear backsliding in key governance institutions across this subset of countries.
Hungary’s precipitous descent is the most glaring example among the newer European Union (EU) members. Its deterioration over the past five years has affected institutions that form the bedrock of democratically accountable systems, including independent courts and media. Hungary’s negative trajectory predated the current government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but his drive to concentrate power over the past two years has forcefully propelled the trend. In this edition of Nations in Transit, which covers calendar 2011, the country suffered declines in every category, a rare occurrence in the history of the report.
To be sure, the swift dismantling of democratic checks has been made easier by Hungary’s particular political circumstances, among them a weak opposition and an illiberal ruling party with an unusual parliamentary supermajority. But the Hungarian example has raised new questions about the vulnerabilities of other young democracies in the region, where the combination of poorly rooted traditions of democratic practice, resilient networks of corruption and clientelism, low levels of public trust and engagement, and shaky economic conditions have hampered the achievement of indelible democratic reforms.
In addition to Hungary, five of the region’s EU member states—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—have experienced net declines over the past five years in the category of independent media. Other categories that have featured erosion during this period are electoral process, civil society, and national democratic governance. Stagnation and decline have also become more apparent in the parts of Southeastern Europe that lie outside the EU. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have all suffered declines in national democratic governance over the past five years, driven in part by the overlap between business and political interests and the nagging problem of organized crime. And the media landscape of this area has been adversely affected by factors including nontransparent media ownership and the physical intimidation of journalists.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, an erstwhile democratic hopeful that holds a pivotal geographical and political position between the EU and Russia, has likewise experienced a sharp, multiyear decline that has accelerated over the past two years. Its scores have worsened in five of the seven Nations in Transit categories. As in Hungary, its neighbor to the west, the current authorities in Ukraine have undertaken a broad assault on institutional accountability and transparency. Most conspicuously, President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration has targeted the country’s already weak judicial independence.
Both Orbán and Yanukovych have been accused of pursuing the “Putinization” of their countries. This is ironic, given that Putinism in Russia itself has been largely discredited over the past year, as ordinary Russians increasingly seek the very guarantees of government accountability and transparency that the leaders of Hungary and Ukraine are busy dismantling. Since the onset of public protests in December 2011, portions of Russian society have signaled an interest in reclaiming the public space that has been systematically taken from them over the past 12 years under Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin is clearly disinclined to enact reforms that would meet the changing societal demands, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy battle of wills. To date, the state’s ability to both coerce and coopt has allowed it to prevail, but it may be forced to lean more heavily on coercion as Putin’s extensive campaign promises run up against budgetary realities and Russia’s dependence on high world energy prices.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, three distinct narratives have taken shape in the geographic space between Western Europe and Asia. The first is that of the successful new democracies of Central Europe and the Baltic region. The second pertains to the slowly improving, middle-performing democratic hopefuls in the Balkans. The third, least positive narrative is that of the reconstituted authoritarian regimes of Eurasia, which have adapted themselves to a post-Soviet world while maintaining an effective monopoly on political and economic power. A small subset of countries in this region—Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine—have demonstrated democratic ambitions but have struggled to construct durable democratic institutions. Ukraine, for its part, now appears poised to leave this group.
The deepening repression in autocratic Eurasian states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia is no longer surprising. Much more worrisome is the multiyear stagnation and increasing reversals in the countries that had presumably crossed a threshold and joined the ranks of established democracies. Hungary is now sorely testing the assumption that such transformations are irreversible, and its experience has cast doubt on the future of potentially more vulnerable states like Latvia, which faces particularly acute economic challenges and ongoing pressure from external powers, and Bulgaria and Romania, which have yet to root out entrenched corruption and continue to confront deep economic and other challenges to consolidating democratic institutions.
There is still a considerable “democracy gap” between the Central European and Baltic states on the one hand, and the authoritarian regimes of Eurasia on the other. And those involved in supporting democracy and human rights have understandably focused their attention on the most execrable abusers of those rights. But now that the high achievers of the past two decades are showing signs of trouble, it is time to take a fresh, clear-eyed look at the deepening challenges to democratic consolidation in Central and Southeastern Europe.
MAIN FINDINGS AND NOTABLE TRENDS
Reverberations of the Arab Spring in Authoritarian States: The overall democracy scores of most Eurasian countries either declined or remained unchanged. Fearing the demonstration effect of the uprisings in the Arab Middle East, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan cracked down hard on protesters in 2011, using the full weight of their pliant judiciaries to preempt and punish dissent.
Deteriorating Judicial Independence in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the judicial framework and independence category in 2011, appearing in every subregion covered by Nations in Transit. A total of eight countries—Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—regressed on this indicator.
Democratic Declines Gain Momentum in Ukraine and Hungary: In an alarmingly short period of time, the Yanukovych government in Ukraine has closed the democratic space that was opened after the Orange Revolution of late 2004. Ukraine’s ratings worsened in five categories for developments in 2011, with a steep, half-point decline in judicial framework and independence. For the second consecutive year, Hungary—once among the strongest performers in the study—experienced sharp declines in four categories, including half-point drops in electoral process, national democratic governance, and judicial framework and independence.
Challenges to Reform in the Balkans: Critical reforms stalled in nearly all Balkan states in 2011. While Croatia demonstrated its commitment to winning EU membership by cooperating with high-profile anticorruption investigations, four other Balkan countries experienced declines in the areas of electoral process, national democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and independent media. Poorly conducted elections in Albania and Kosovo revealed the fragility of electoral reform in the absence of judicial independence and accountability.
Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska is project director for Nations in Transit. Katherin Machalek, Tyler Roylance, and Katherine Brooks provided critical research and editorial assistance for this essay.
The above extract is from Fragile Frontier: Democracy’s Growing Vulnerability in Central and Southeastern Europe, the latest edition of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit survey. Read the rest here.