The countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia experienced a decline in their democratic development in 2008, according to a report issued June 30 by the American watchdog group Freedom House.
Nearly every country in the region saw its rankings drop in Freedom House's Nations in Transit 2009 report, according to numerical measurements that the organization developed to try to quantify democratization in several crucial areas, including civil society development, independent media, elections and corruption. Azerbaijan experienced the largest decline among the 29 post-communist countries that Freedom House examined. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan for the first time joined the ranks of the "consolidated authoritarian regimes," joining every other post-Soviet Central Asian state in that category, along with Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
"It was a bad year," said Vladimir Shkolnikov, director of Freedom House Europe and author of the report, at a news conference in Prague. Shkolnikov said it was the worst performance that the post-communist region had seen in the 13 years that Freedom House has conducted its democratization survey.
Azerbaijan saw its aggregate score drop from 6.00 to 6.25, on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 is the most democratic and 7 is the least. Presidential elections at the end of 2008, which were not contested, "marked another step back for Azerbaijan," according to the report.
Turkmenistan had the worst democratization record among the countries surveyed, registering a score of 6.93 (unchanged from the previous year). Uzbekistan followed closely behind Ashgabat, with a score of 6.89. The situation in Turkmenistan has not improved during the administration of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, despite "initial promise," and the much-touted domestic reforms that he carried out in the first few months of his rule have stopped, said Bruce Pannier, an analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who worked on the Central Asia portions of the report.
Kazakhstan's score dropped slightly, from 6.39 to 6.32, boosted by gains in independent media and in the judicial system. It was the only country in the Caucasus or Central Asia to show any improvement during 2008.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan's overall performance was still poor, Freedom House said: "Notwithstanding its impending takeover of the 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Kazakhstani government has not taken a single convincing step toward promoting democratic rule, aiding political liberalization, establishing genuine tolerance, or creating conditions for the functioning of an independent media and civil society."
Kyrgyzstan used to be an "island of democracy" and an example for other Central Asian states. But since Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power, the country has regressed on democratization, Pannier said. Parliamentary elections at the end of 2007 resulted in Bakiyev consolidating his power, and allegations of corruption and nepotism have increased, he said. "Kyrgyzstan is looking more like the other Central Asian states that were originally supposed to follow Kyrgyzstan's model instead," he said.
The only two countries in the region to escape being labeled "consolidated authoritarian regimes" were Georgia and Armenia, but both saw their scores drop. In Armenia's case it was in part because of the authorities' use of force to put down protests after presidential elections, and in Georgia because parliamentary elections there were "deeply flawed . . . where the ruling party enshrined the use of administrative resources into law."
The report sharply criticized international bodies that monitor elections in the region, including the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, for making election assessments in Armenia that "appeared questionable and even misleading," the report said.
"Even more bizarre was the statement made by international observers from the EP, OSCE/ODIHR and OSCE PA after the clearly uncompetitive Azerbaijan elections in October. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it found that 'the elections marked considerable progress toward meeting OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and other international standards,'" the report said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.