Kyrgyzstan has notched the depressing accolade as the country with the greatest decline in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report, dropping 11 points and falling into the “not free” category with the rest of the Central Asian region. (Disclaimer: I served as an advisor on this year’s report, providing input and feedback on Central Asia.)
2020 was as a disaster for democracy the world over. “As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020,” the report’s opening essay begins, “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”
In each of the past 15 years, countries with aggregate score declines have outnumbered those with improvements, feeding talk that perhaps democracy isn’t so great after all. The report pushes back against this notion: “The enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people’s needs. In fact, democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it.”
Kyrgyzstan’s decline in score is unsurprising to those who have been paying attention. Freedom House’s methodology (which I encourage you to explore) is designed to respond to real-world events. The October 2020 parliamentary elections were deeply flawed, and the protests and political upheavals that followed were marked by violence and intimidation. The country’s parliament, whose mandate has since expired, remains in its seats shepherding a worrying new constitution forward at the behest of a new president with blatantly populist tendencies.
In answer to questions like “Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?” for Kyrgyzstan, the score had to be zero. At year’s end, Japarov was acting president after having pressured parliament speaker Kanat Isayev, who constitutionally should have assumed the acting role after Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s resignation, into standing aside. When it came to the political arena, there was little democratic sense to who was in charge and how they’d come to be there. Japarov’s rise from prisoner to president isn’t exactly a paragon of democratic practices adhering to the rule of law.
As for corruption, Kyrgyzstan scored another zero in answer to this question: “Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?” Again, as of the end of 2020, Kyrgyzstan’s most infamous figure, Raimbek Matraimov, had been released on house arrest and looked set to get away with paying a fine under a cockamamie “economic amnesty” scheme. And he did, before public outcry in February 2021 led to his rearrest.
An important point to make is that changes in 2020 can, conceivably, be reversed in 2021: Japarov has now been formally elected, though certainly there will be quibbling over the free and fairness of it, and it’s possible that Matraimov may face actual punishment, though that seems unlikely given past trends. Declining democracies have demonstrated difficulty making a turnaround, but it is possible for Kyrgyzstan to rejoin the “partly free” next year.
In its opening essay, the Freedom in the World 2021 report states that “Although… better-performing countries had been in retreat for several years, in 2020 it was struggling democracies and authoritarian states that accounted for more of the global decline.”
In essence, the already unfree, and those on the border, became less free.
While Kyrgyzstan regrettably doesn’t merit mention in the opening essay, it’s worth exploring how the themes identified globally apply to the country. For example, Freedom House identifies a shifting international balance toward authoritarian norms, “exploiting both the advantages of nondemocratic systems and the weaknesses in ailing democracies.” Kyrgyzstan’s democratic weaknesses were on full display in October 2020, the genesis of the current political situation.
As for sources of influence: Kyrgyzstan’s major partners, also, are “not free” countries — China, Russia, the rest of Central Asia — and global states once upheld as beacons of democracy — the United States and India, for example — in 2020 undermined their own democratic credentials in devastatingly obvious ways.
Then there’s the impact of the pandemic on the economy and on governance and rights. The pandemic did not create problems of inequality, a lack of transparency and rule of law, or corruption in Kyrgyzstan, but it did exacerbate those preexisting conditions and provide fertile ground for protest which, as we saw in October 2020, was co-opted by organized populists with autocratic tendencies despite roots in the outcries of democratic activists.
While Kyrgyzstan joined the ranks of the “not free” in 2020, it may bounce back if the political situation can be stabilized and focus directed at resurrecting the rule of law. The country’s relatively stronger scores in the “civil liberties” subcategory — owing to (again, relatively) free and independent media, greater academic freedom, and the ability of individuals to express themselves — arguably forms the basis of the country’s democratic recovery. But that will only remain true if those features are valued and protected by the new government, rather than further eroded.
Kyrgyzstan, with a score of 28 still ranks the highest in Central Asia, ahead of Kazakhstan (23), Uzbekistan (11), Tajikistan (9) and Turkmenistan (2). Countries are scored on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most free.