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Democracy 'Retreating' As Trump 'Abdicates' U.S. Role

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House in Washington on January 10, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the White House in Washington on January 10, 2018

Democracy is "under assault and retreating" around the world, with the United States "abdicating" its traditional role as a champion of democratic ideals in the past year while Russia and China "increase repression at home" and "export their malign influence" abroad, Freedom House says.

The Washington-based nongovernmental group presented those findings in a report on the global erosion of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom In The World 2018, that it released on January 16.

"Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades," Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said. "Democracy's basic tenets -- including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law -- are under siege around the world.”

The report says 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with 71 countries "suffering net declines in political rights and civil liberties."

"A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy," the report says.

Freedom House, a political freedom and human rights advocacy group that is funded by the U.S. government, says it has "tracked a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past seven years."

But it says that "the decline accelerated in 2017, owing to evidence of Russian interferences in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards" by President Donald Trump’s administration, and "a reduction in government transparency."

The report says that "the press and the judiciary have remained resilient in the face of unprecedented attacks from President Trump."

But it warns that those institutions ultimately could be weakened by Trump's attacks, "with serious implications for the health of U.S. democracy and America's place in the world."

Abramowitz said, "the core institutions of American democracy are being battered by an administration that has treated the country’s traditional checks and balances with disdain."

Exporting Autocracy

Meanwhile, Freedom House says, "autocratic regimes" in Russia and China have "taken advantage of the retreat of leading democracies" and are "acting beyond their borders to squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions."

Abramowitz says the Trump administration's "sharp break from the political consensus of the last 70 years" has cast aside democracy as the "animating force behind American foreign policy."

He said Trump's "hastening withdrawal" from the historical U.S. commitment to supporting democracies abroad has made "the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes all the more powerful and threatening."

The report says Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has "demonstrated the increasing sophistication and reach of modern authoritarian regimes" by "organizing disinformation campaigns during elections in European democracies" and cultivating ties with "xenophobic political parties across the continent," threatening its closest neighbors, and serving as "an alternative source of military aid for Middle Eastern dictatorships."

"The central goal of these efforts was to disrupt democratic states and fracture the institutions that bind them together."

'Worst Of The Worst'

Elsewhere in RFE/RL's broadcast region, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were singled out among the 12 "worst of the worst counties" for political freedom and civil liberties.

The report says Uzbekistan's new government has "prompted cautious optimism" as a new administration formed after the death of longtime autocratic ruler Islam Karimov ended some forms of forced labor and granted "new if limited space" for civil society.

But it says Uzbekistan deserves "special scrutiny."

"Lasting change in one of the world’s most repressive political systems will require sustained international attention as well as support for independent voices in the country's media and civil society," the report says.

Countries To Watch

In Serbia, Freedom House concludes that the tolerance of European Union leaders toward President Aleksandar Vucic's "authoritarian tendencies allowed him to further sideline the opposition and undermine what remains of the country's independent media."

Georgia, Afghanistan, and Macedonia are also named as "countries to watch in 2018" that may experience important developments deserving "special scrutiny."

It says opposition alliances are "crystallizing ahead of Afghanistan's long-overdue parliamentary elections, but preparations for the polls have been lacking, and it is uncertain whether they will be held as planned in 2018."

In Tbilisi, the report says, "the ruling Georgian Dream party recently pushed through constitutional amendments in Georgia that -- combined with the financial backing of its reclusive billionaire patron, [former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili] -- will make an effective challenge by the fractured opposition in future elections even more unlikely, potentially cementing the party's control for years to come."

In Skopje, Freedom House says Macedonia's "democratically elected, ethnically inclusive government" of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is "seeking to root out corruption and other systemic abuses that grew worse under its scandal-plagued predecessor."

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