Negative developments in Hungary and Ukraine are at the forefront of an antidemocratic trend in Central and Eastern Europe that raises serious questions about the durability of the European Union’s young democracies, as well as prospects for aspiring members, according to a report released by Freedom House today. Nations in Transit 2012 is the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual analysis of democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. At a time of growing economic uncertainty, the report warns of rising antidemocratic tendencies in Hungary and Ukraine that have the potential to take root elsewhere in the region.
“Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, under the pretext of so-called reforms, have been systematically breaking down critical checks and balances,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “They appear to be pursuing the ‘Putinization’ of their countries, which is ironic, given that in Russia itself Putinism has been largely discredited over the past year, as ordinary Russians increasingly seek guarantees of government accountability and transparency.”
The report notes Hungary’s year-on-year performance as the most glaring example of democratic decline among the newer European Union (EU) members, where the combination of weak traditions of democratic practice, resilient networks of corruption and clientelism, low levels of public trust, and shaky economic conditions have hampered the achievement of indelible democratic reforms. Five other EU member states in the region—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—have also experienced net declines over the past five years.
Ukraine, which saw a brief democratic opening after the Orange Revolution in 2004, has suffered significant decline in an alarmingly short period of time. Under the Yanukovych government, Ukraine’s Nations in Transit ratings worsened in five categories year on year, with a steep decline in judicial framework and independence and an overall democracy score that is rapidly approaching its pre–Orange Revolution level. Ukraine’s downward trajectory, like the negative trend among a number of EU hopefuls in the Balkans, raises real doubts about the prospects for widening the circle of democratic states in Europe.
“As we see the high achievers of the past two decades, the new EU states, showing signs of trouble, it is time for a greater international focus on the deepening challenges to democratic consolidation in Central and Southeastern Europe,” said Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, project director for Nations in Transit.
Additional key findings:
- In Russia, fraudulent parliamentary elections and the promise of a predetermined presidential succession sparked widespread protests in December, but the authorities refrained from massive crackdowns against civil society. However, the regime continued to use the judiciary as a means of intimidating and persecuting activists, and to defend or deny the authorities’ role in the 2009 death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.
- Critical reforms stalled in nearly all Balkan states. While Croatia demonstrated its commitment to winning EU membership by cooperating with high-profile anticorruption investigations, four other Balkan countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia—experienced declines in the areas of electoral process, national democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and independent media.
- The role of money in politics and the economic vulnerability of media outlets are among the issues that should raise concern about the depth and durability of democracy in new EU states. The challenge to democracy is exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis, as governments struggle to impose unpopular austerity measures.
- Declines were most numerous in the judicial framework and independence category, 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.