For the nineteenth year in a row, democratic governance experienced a general deterioration in Emerging Europe and Central Asia, according to Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit report, which warns that the war in Ukraine poses a threat to democracy across the wider region.
In 2023, there were declines in the scores of 11 of the 29 countries analysed in the report. This decline was overwhelmingly concentrated in the eight countries classified as Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes, which accounted for more than half of the score declines.
The seven countries where positive developments were recorded, by contrast, all fell into the categories of Consolidated Democracy, Semi-consolidated Democracy or Hybrid Regime. Some countries “made clear choices in favour of a more democratic future during 2022”, the report said.
The report argues that the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the state of democracy going far beyond the combatants.
In particular, it increased the gap between authoritarian and democratic regimes in the region. “The heightened security threats, historic refugee crisis, and economic disruption associated with the conflict [Ukraine war] have deepened the gulf between autocracies and democracies, and triggered divisive shifts in the foreign policies of individual governments,” said the report.
It argues that should the Kremlin succeed in its attempt to conquer Ukraine, it would threaten the progress in the region since 1989, and set an example to other regimes.
“For democracy to flourish in the Nations in Transit region and throughout the world, Ukraine must prevail in its more than nine-year struggle against authoritarian aggression. But Ukraine’s victory will not be sufficient on its own. Governments and citizens across the region must recognise that their freedom and security are contingent on their solidarity, and their solidarity is based on shared adherence to democratic principles,” Freedom House said.
“Just as the future of freedom and democracy in Europe and Eurasia depends on Ukraine’s victory, so too does the future of global freedom depend on the defeat of autocracy and the revitalisation of democracy in this region.”
Standing strong in Ukraine
Democracy “stood strong” in Ukraine, after the country was invaded by Russia in February 2022, and “Ukraine's government and people confirmed their commitment to liberal democracy in the face of unimaginable violence”, according to the report.
The invasion came after decades during which democratic progress in Ukraine had “been stymied by a combination of homegrown obstacles and malign interference from the authoritarian regime in Russia”. Ukrainian pro-democracy reformers have had to confront deep-rooted corruption and clientelistic networks, while countering Russian support for those networks, propaganda, disinformation, and military invasions.
Nevertheless, Ukrainians have remained steadfast in their commitment to a democratic future, the report argued. Through the daily efforts of governance, legislation, elections, journalism, activism, and community participation, Ukraine has made strides towards a freer and more equitable society, the report said. While not yet meeting the criteria for a Consolidated Democracy, Ukraine's people are actively involved in a “collective project of democratisation”.
Russia’s score worsens
Conversely Russia’s democracy score slumped, with its aggression against Ukraine accompanied by an intensification of the authorities’ repression of dissent at home. 2023 saw the largest single-year drop in Russia’s score in the 30-year history of the report, with declines on five out of seven thematic indicators. The overall Democracy Score fell from 1.32 to 1.11 on a scale of 1 to 7.
Civil liberties within Russia suffered as oppressive laws were implemented, independent media outlets and NGOs were shut down or forced into exile, and dissidents faced heavy prison sentences. Regional and local governments were coerced by the Kremlin to contribute resources and support the violent occupation of Ukraine.
Belarus, heavily influenced by Russia, faced pressure to surrender sovereignty and actively participate in the invasion of Ukraine. President Aleksander Lukashenko adopted similar methods of domestic repression as in Russia and employed new tactics, including diverting funds meant for the pro-democracy movement to state-owned charities.
State violence has become a defining characteristic of the Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes in the region that include Russia as well as most of the Central Asian states.
In 2022, six out of eight countries categorised as Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes experienced declines in their overall Democracy Scores, with no improvements observed.
In Central Asia, power concentration, dissent and violent repression formed a vicious cycle driven by internal developments rather than regional conflicts, the report said. Protests emerged as responses to grievances, prompting authorities to employ mass detention, torture and even murder to suppress dissent. Superficial concessions followed the violence, but underlying discontent persisted, setting the stage for a recurring process. The pattern was evident in various incidents across the subregion, such as the deadly protests in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, and the attempts to centralise power in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Freedom House considers Ukraine plus the nearby states of Armenia, Georgia and Moldova to be on the front line of democracy.
They are among several states from the Caucasus and Southeast Europe on the EU’s periphery, where, the report says, “Moscow’s renewed invasion of its neighbour made clear that the EU is their only viable option for political and economic solidarity.”
Of the four states, Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia have steadily improved their democratic institutions in recent years, and in 2022, Moldova and Ukraine both attained full EU candidate status.
“Even as authoritarian aggression and skullduggery have threatened their basic security, the people and their freely elected leaders have fought to improve governance through close collaboration with local NGOs and professionals,” the report says.
“The full-scale invasion of Ukraine was designed in part to scuttle this progress and reassert the Kremlin’s influence over such states, but instead it broke an EU deadlock on the issue of accession. The union was forced to recognise these countries’ democratic momentum, and the fact that closer relations were an imperative for its own security.”
Despite facing challenges such as a national security crisis on the border with Ukraine, strained relations with the opposition, and deep-rooted corruption, Moldova's political leaders demonstrated their capability in governance.
Armenia, although yet to apply for EU candidacy, made significant democratic progress in 2022, surpassing other countries in Nations in Transit 2023 by improving on multiple indicators, noted Freedom House.
In contrast, Georgia's government performed poorly, marked by toxic political polarisation infiltrating public institutions and a biased media ecosystem. The government's proposal of a "foreign agents" law triggered protests and police violence before its withdrawal.
Meanwhile Freedom House urged the EU to do its part to “shake off its sclerotic approach to addressing illiberal and autocratic challenges within its borders, and reinvigorate its commitment to aspiring EU members and freedom-loving people across the region”.
Hungary and Poland diverge
While aspiring EU members work to improve their democracies, EU member Hungary saw the steepest decline in its democracy score across the region after Russia.
Both Hungary and Poland had experienced declining democratic performance since 2015 under the leadership of illiberal parties. However, in 2022, the countries’ paths finally diverged; in 2022, Poland's decline was halted, while Hungary's continued.
While Poland has been supportive of Ukraine, the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary has prioritised relations with Russia. Aside from its problematic relationship with Russia, the NGO writes that Hungary’s parliamentary elections were marred by irregularities, administrative abuses, and media distortions, solidifying the supermajority of Orban’s Fidesz party. The Orbán regime further displayed intolerance towards dissent by targeting critical NGOs and the National Judicial Council.
In fellow EU member states Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, political turmoil persisted with a trend of what Freedom House called “stable instability”. However, despite their internal challenges, these countries' democratic institutions and their ratings in the Nations in Transit report were not significantly affected throughout the year.
Enlargement drags on
Although there was progress on EU enlargement in 2022, with the admission of new candidate countries and the go-ahead for accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, overall the lengthy accession processes in the Western Balkans have contributed to disillusionment and weakened the union's ability to drive reforms.
While people in the region express strong support for EU membership, domestic elites resistant to democratic changes and international elites lacking determination in the accession process have left citizens feeling abandoned. Years of waiting have led to disillusionment about short-term membership prospects, with the allure of EU accession primarily centred around individual prosperity, freedom of movement, and the opportunity to leave, rather than expectations of democratic progress at home. Mass emigration from the Western Balkans has created a crisis of confidence, leading to continued faltering of democratic institutions, the report adds.
Political dysfunction, polarisation and blockades have hindered progress in countries like North Macedonia and Montenegro, while Albania faces challenges from clientelistic politics and corruption, it says. Relations between Serbia and Kosovo strain democratic progress, with ongoing territorial disputes and irregularities in elections. Elite-driven politics have marginalised civil society, necessitating the inclusion of their voices in decision-making processes. Without democratic progress, Freedom House warns, the region remains vulnerable to external authoritarian influence, highlighting the need for the EU to reevaluate its approach and for national leaders to deliver democratic advancements.