Crossroads Asia

Central Asia: Nations (No Longer) in Transit

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Crossroads Asia

Central Asia: Nations (No Longer) in Transit

Freedom House’s annual report marks 12 years of democratic declines.

Central Asia: Nations (No Longer) in Transit
Credit: Public Domain

The “entrenched dictatorships” of Eurasia are increasingly stressed by economic hardship, the latest Freedom House Nations in Transit report argues, and this threatens the stability that autocracies in Eurasia have subsisted on.

Freedom House has been tracking the progress of democracy across Eastern Europe and Eurasia and annually publishing its findings since 1995. Few of the 29 former Communist states covered in the annual Nations in Transit report, released April 12, have charted much progress in the last dozen years.

“Weighted for population,” one of the report’s key findings says, “the average Democracy Score of the 29 formerly Communist countries surveyed by Nations in Transit has declined every year since 2004—12 years in a row, including 2015.”

The report scores each state on seven indicators–national and local democratic governance, electoral process, civil society, independent media, judicial framework and independence, and corruption–and averages those scores to arrive at the country’s “democracy score.” The scores are based on assessments by the authors of individual country reports, a panel of academic advisers, and the input of regional experts. The democracy scores range from 1 (a consolidated democracy) to 7 (a consolidated authoritarian regime).

Interestingly, the 29 countries–broken up into three regions (Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia)–sort into three different strata. Those in Central Europe have better scores, averaging 2.55, than those in the Balkans, averaging 4.19. Eurasia sits at the bottom with an average score of 6.04. But across the entire region there’s been a distinct retrenchment of democracy

Seven of the 15 states of the former Soviet Union fall into the bottom of the ratings, with scores between 6 and 7, making them consolidated authoritarian regimes: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Only Kyrgyzstan–of the five Central Asian states–escapes the bottom of the ratings and in 2015 (the year on which the 2016 report is based) actually charted an improvement, likely owing to its successful parliamentary elections in October. That said, with its score of 5.89, Kyrgyzstan seems to still be dancing on the edge of authoritarianism. Kazakhstan’s score, 6.61, remained unchanged from last year. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have an additional dubious honor: their score, 6.93, is the lowest out of the 29 states included in the study (positions they’ve occupied for a decade).

Democratization has been a hot topic in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But despite billions invested in various kinds of programs–building civil society, investing in independent media, and engaging in parliamentary exchanges–there hasn’t been much measurable progress.

At the report’s launch in Washington DC, much of the conversation circled Central European and Balkan declines in democracy–simply because there’s isn’t much new to be said about Eurasia. The economic crisis that has hardened over the past year–seen in bottomed-out oil prices, devalued currencies, and drops in remittances–presents, in the words of Nations in Transit project director Nate Schenkkan, a “perverse” kind of opportunity for the West to stress the benefits of democratic reforms, particularly transparency and accountability.

“The economic crisis that is striking these dictatorships across the region is presenting a kind of  opportunity–in a perverse way–for the United States and for the West. I think the United States and the West have more leverage right now than they have had–at least since 2002–in Central Asia and the south Caucasus,” Schenkkan said.

Economic high times sustained autocratic regimes in power, but the resources Central Asian leaders once could draw on to maintain themselves are vanishing. The social contract in which the population accepted an autocratic state for economic stability and security could break down.

In addition, with the wind-down of the Western role in the war in Afghanistan, a feature that long defined American relationships in the region “is much diminished,”  Schenkkan said.

“As a result of these two factors–the economic crisis and the change in Afghanistan–the United States in particular has a much stronger position and much less to lose” in setting (and actually adhering to) stricter limits with regard to cooperation and reform, he argued.