The U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House says Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan are among countries that experienced "serious setbacks" in political rights and civil liberties during 2013.
The group's "Freedom In The World 2014" report, published on January 23, says rights and liberties around the world declined during 2013 for the eighth year in a row -- the longest such period of decline in the report's 41-year history.
The report says Russian President Vladimir Putin's government continued its antidemocratic tendencies, both at home and abroad.
Domestically, it says Moscow took actions against vulnerable minorities such as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community and non-ethnic Russians, while the government consolidated its control over media.
Abroad, the report says Russia conducted a "campaign of intimidation" against its neighbors -- strong-arming Ukraine and Armenia into scuppering closer ties with the European Union.
The report says Putin's government employed "a series of opportunistic maneuvers" -- such as co-sponsoring a Syrian chemical weapons agreement, granting temporary asylum to fugitive U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, and granting pardons to several high-profile political prisoners -- to deflect international criticism ahead of February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, told RFE/RL that such moves could not hide the fact that Russia is one of the world's most prominent authoritarian regimes.
"Russia is the leading power in its neighborhood, and it has been in a state of decline since Putin became president in 2000," he said. "That decline accelerated when he returned to the presidency and began this systematic crackdown on civil society, on the political opposition, on what's left of an independent media. All of these developments we see as very negative, and we see Russia as really one of the most important authoritarian powers in the world."
'Worst Of The Worst'
The report also highlights the continued deterioration of democracy in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych's government.
Puddington voiced concern about violence between police and antigovernment protesters in Ukraine, saying the United States must take more vigorous steps to condemn it.
"We are very concerned about Ukraine," he said. "Since Yanukovych took over, it has declined rather considerably and declined again this past year. We're very concerned about developments there right now. We're also concerned that the American government hasn't been aggressive enough in protesting against the policies of the [Ukrainian] government."
The report lists the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan among the 10 "worst of the worst" democratic rights offenders in the world. Belarus is ranked only slightly higher.
Puddington called on the West to forgo economic or strategic interests in Central Asia and press harder for improvements in democratic standards.
"Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan also have very low scores," he said. "Central Asia proves the slogan that there is one standard for countries with energy wealth or strategic significance, and there's another standard for everybody else. You have some of the most repressive regimes in the world in Central Asia, and yet these regimes do not get the attention from the United States or from the European Union."
The Freedom House paper says Pakistan showed improvement last year and achieved the status of an "electoral democracy," while Afghanistan's democratic standards continued to deteriorate.
The report highlights progress by Georgia and Moldova.
It also notes "across-the-board reversals" in Egypt's democratic evolution and "serious setbacks" to democratic rights in Turkey.
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.