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Watchdog Cites Global 'Dual Threat' From Authoritarian Powers, Populist Movements

At a January 21 protest on Kyiv's Independence Square, activists demanded the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, withdraw Russian troops from Eastern Ukraine.
At a January 21 protest on Kyiv's Independence Square, activists demanded the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, withdraw Russian troops from Eastern Ukraine.

U.S.-based liberty-and-democracy watchdog Freedom House warns that civil liberties came increasingly under threat in 2016 as authoritarian powers gained strength in many parts of the world and "populist and nationalist forces" rose in democratic states.

The group says in its Freedom in the World 2017 report that 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties last year, almost twice as many as the 36 states that registered net improvements. The annual survey assessed 195 countries in total.

One of the most notable offenders in 2016, according to Freedom House, was Russia.

"Russia, in stunning displays of hubris and hostility, interfered in the political processes of the United States and other democracies, escalated its military support for the [Bashar al-] Assad dictatorship in Syria, and solidified its illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory," the report says.

At the same time, the report says, Moscow further reduced the space for public dissent and political opposition at home.

Russia already has a very repressive environment, but somehow it still seems to get worse each year."
-- Sarah Repucci, Freedom House

"Russia already has a very repressive environment, but somehow it still seems to get worse each year," says Sarah Repucci, a spokesman for Freedom House in New York. "This year, we were especially concerned with control over parliamentary and regional elections and the basic total extinction of a liberal opposition in the legislature, and we are also concerned about NGOs that Russia considers to be 'foreign agents' or undesirables and through that is able to basically silence NGOs that have any kind of independent voice in the country."

Meanwhile, Freedom House says growing populist and nationalist camps in democratic states are also contributing to the general decline of freedoms that the group reports worldwide.

"We are familiar with seeing increased repression in dictatorships, [but] the declines in freedom in the more free countries of the world have started to make their impact as well on the overall decline of freedom," says Repucci.

The report argues that major democracies "are mired in anxiety and indecision after events such as Britain’s vote to leave the European Union" as well as "gains by xenophobic nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, and the U.S. presidential victory of Donald Trump."

"One of the things that we are most concerned about is the treatment of minority populations," Repucci says. "It was happening last year with the migrant crisis in Europe, but we are seeing it as a larger trend and also becoming something that is acceptable, that it's OK for mainstream politicians to say that they don't believe that these people should be in the country, that they believe that these people should be treated differently."

Looking at Eurasia as a whole, Freedom House says that 2016 showed the region "divided between a more democratic-oriented fringe and a core of rigid autocracies."

The report says countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova "struggled to build on fragile democratic gains of recent years" but warns their progress could be at risk if the West cut back on support.

"This year, we are especially concerned because it is looking like the European Union and the United States both may be more concerned about internal issues than serving as an example to other countries or helping to support their democracies," says Repucci. "So it is a particular concern in those countries on Russia’s eastern fringe and also in the Balkans that we may start to see even more reversals."

The report says that in many other countries in Eurasia, including Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, governments "took steps to shore up their power amid economic and political uncertainty."

Repucci says that Azerbaijan's constitutional referendum in 2016 was "basically a message for maintaining [President Ilham] Aliyev's control," while in Kyrgyzstan there were signs that President Almazbek Atambaev "might be setting up a situation where he can move from the presidency to the prime minister’s post, which through constitutional changes would be more powerful."

In Tajikistan, "a referendum cleared the way for President Emomali Rahmon to run for an unlimited number of terms and lowered the age of eligibility for the presidency -- a move likely meant to allow Rahmon's son to succeed him." The authorities also in June sentenced two leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (HNIT) to life imprisonment while several others received lengthy prison terms.

Freedom House designated 49 countries as "not free" in 2016, noting that they account for 36 percent of the planet's population.

Among those states rated as "not free" are: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The report singles out Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as being among 11 countries in the "not free" group that have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties. Other states in the same worst-of-the-worst category include North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria.

Repucci says that what the "worst of the worst" have in common is stagnation.

"What we are seeing in those highly repressive dictatorships is complete control, no space for any kind of dissent, whether that dissent is coming from small protest groups or an independent NGO, or an independent journalist, no space for any of those kinds of voices and meanwhile complete stagnation," she says. "You will notice if you look at this list over the past few years you are going to see those states on that list again and again."

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