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Freedom House's report: Democracy declines for 20th consecutive year

Democratic governance declined for the 20th year in a row last year in a region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, according to Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit report, released Thursday.

The report from the Washington advocacy group, which covers democratic trends, describes a shift toward authoritarian rule and a "geopolitical reordering" of the region. That reordering is splitting the region into a transatlantic pro-democracy bloc and an autocratic, anti-democracy bloc, it says.

Democratic principles suffered setbacks in 10 of the 29 countries in the region, the report says. It identifies deepening authoritarian rule, expanding authoritarian aggression and a strong need for global democratic leadership to stem these threats.

Despite the trend, the report found that most democracies maintained democratic standards at home. It noted that Poland, although facing democratic backsliding, was able to change course during a high-turnout election last October, and that its ability to recover will be "crucial for the future of the wider region."

Another finding is that hybrid regimes, which are known for containing both democratic and autocratic traits, are at a crossroads.

As countries in the region are moving into distinctly autocratic or democratic blocs, countries with hybrid regimes could go either way and 2024 could be a consequential year, the report says. This will be the biggest election year in recorded history, with about half the world's population in more than 50 countries heading to the polls.

Mike Smeltzer, the senior research analyst for the Nations in Transit report and one of the two co-authors, described the crossroads during a webinar Thursday. He described three camps: democratizing hybrids, autocratizing hybrids and cyclical hybrids.

Autocratizing hybrids include countries such as Serbia and Georgia and are marked by governing institutions that are "increasingly captured by ruling parties and abused for partisan or personal gain," said Smeltzer.

Commitment to reform

Democratizing hybrids, which include Ukraine and Kosovo, have "more genuine political pluralism and … [have] shown a real commitment to the reform and strengthening of democratic institutions."

Smeltzer said shifts to democratizing hybrids are often "the result of an external catalyzing event like aggression from an authoritarian power.” “Nowhere is this truer than in Ukraine," he continued, noting steps it took last year to improve the effectiveness of its courts and anti-corruption bodies.

The report found that Ukraine is the only country out of the 11 hybrid regimes in the region that improved its democracy. The final group is cyclical hybrids, in which regimes "may ricochet between democratic and autocratic breakthroughs without ever seeming to achieve a full consolidation in either direction," Smeltzer said. This includes countries such as Albania and Armenia.

Outside these groups are consolidated authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Azerbaijan, which Smeltzer said not only resisted movement toward democracy after the Cold War but have also "intensified the repression and worked to thwart democratization efforts elsewhere."

The report outlined multiple recommendations to reverse the trend of declining democracy in the region. These recommendations include making rule of law a strategic priority, helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia, holding autocrats accountable, supporting voter education on obstacles to reform, and supporting human rights defenders while in exile and in their home countries.

Panelist David Kramer, former president of Freedom House and current executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, highlighted support for Ukraine as the most important policy recommendation for protecting global democracy and reversing trends seen over the past two decades.

"If we don't help Ukraine win, those other recommendations won't amount to too much," Kramer said. "We will see the Russian threat roll on throughout the region, and we will see other authoritarian regimes feel emboldened as a result of the West's abandonment of Ukraine."

The report also highlighted increased cooperation among autocracies. It said that consolidated authoritarian regimes "have actively supported one another in evading sanctions, crushing domestic opposition, and blunting any accountability for military aggression and other violations of international law."

Nevertheless, the panelists were not despondent. They said Ukraine's resilience, the large turnout at Poland's recent election, and the overall failure of authoritarian governments to deliver on their promises to citizens are reasons to be hopeful for the future of democracy.

Samuel Weinmann