While economic downturns are threatening the stability of the former Soviet Union’s “entrenched dictatorships,” the migration crisis is fueling populism in Eastern Europe, and reforms in the Balkans are in retreat, a new report concludes.
Europe and Eurasia ended 2015 mired in institutional and economic crises that threatened both the survival of the European Union and the stability of Eurasia’s entrenched dictatorships, writes Freedom House researcher Nate Schenkkan:
While illiberal nationalism rose in Europe, with Central European leaders closing borders and denouncing refugees as a threat to the nation, financial pressures brought about by falling oil prices and worker remittances undermined the economies of Russia and most former Soviet states. The risk is that these separate developments could converge, with the collapse of Eurasian states adding to Europe’s growing list of troubles.
Since 1995, Nations in Transit has tracked the progress and regression of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia. Data from the last decade present a grim portrait of decline, he adds:
Weighted for population, the average Democracy Score in the region has declined for 12 years in a row. A stark return to consolidated authoritarianism in Russia, which accounts for 35 percent of the region’s population, has been the top driver of the decline. But the problem goes well beyond Russia. The region has had more declines than improvements every year since 2007. Not a single subregion—Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, or Eurasia—has improved overall since 2011. These trends have now coalesced into fundamental threats to the regional order that bode ill for 2016 and beyond.
Small reasons for hope
Driven by Hungary’s rapid backsliding, Nations in Transit’s average Democracy Score for Central and Eastern Europe has now declined 12 percent from its peak in 2006, the report continues:
Moreover, the Law and Justice party’s moves to rapidly take control of state institutions and weaken checks and balances in Poland damaged that country’s score in 2015 and portend further declines in 2016.
But even in a dark year, there are small reasons for hope, Schenkkan suggests:
Civil society–driven efforts to uproot a corrupt system in Ukraine showed intermittent progress in 2015, with the government enjoying relative stability and laying the groundwork for institutional reforms in the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, and anticorruption bodies. So far the EU and democratic donor governments have remained firm in making assistance conditional on reforms, and it is vital that this approach continue, lest entrenched elites turn such aid into yet another embezzlement scheme. Ukraine is and should be the top priority for reform efforts in the region, and aid must not become a blank check for its leaders.
The same is true for Moldova, where the EU and its allies still have a chance to build on popular outrage over the 2014 theft of $1 billion from the country’s banks and force the state to finally tackle corruption.
In Georgia, despite the politicization of high-profile cases, the judiciary has improved at the day-to-day level, offering a positive sign that even in a polarized system, structural reform may still have momentum. Parliamentary elections in 2016 will be a major test of the durability of this trend. Kyrgyzstan held on-schedule elections in October that improved modestly on its previous round in 2010. Although there is disturbing evidence of consolidation of power around President Almazbek Atambayev, the electoral process was open enough that his party could not secure a majority in the parliament. Kosovo, the worst performer in the Balkans for years, made some progress on institution building in 2015, although a serious crisis between the opposition and government brought the parliament to a standstill late in the year, threatening to cripple the government’s work in 2016.
The biggest driver of decline in the former Soviet Union has been the return to authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin in Russia, the report adds. Seven of the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union are led by dictators who have been in power for 10 years or more. Low oil prices are now threatening the stability of these consolidated authoritarian regimes.
“Governments in oil producers like Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan built their economies on sand,” said Schenkkan. “The profit when oil prices were high went into the pockets of officials connected to the presidents. Now these states must face the consequences after years of failing to diversify their economies or create transparent and accountable systems of government.”