07 April, 2017
The United States-based group Freedom House says democracy dropped in more than half of the countries it studied last year.
Freedom House rated the health of democracy in 29 countries in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in Central Asia. All 29 were once under Communist Party rule.
The findings are part of a new report called "Nations in Transit 2017."
This is the second-largest drop in democracy ratings in the 22-years Freedom House has produced the report. The group blames the drop on the rise of populism. It noted that leaders in some countries are openly attacking democracy.
Concerns about Hungary and Poland
The report says Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, now has the lowest rating of any country in Central Europe.
Nate Schenkkan works for Freedom House in New York. He spoke to VOA on Skype.
"When we talk about populism in Central Europe, Orbán is the first name. He has created a kind of model for member states, even of the European Union, to reject democracy."
There were pro-democracy protests in Hungary last Sunday.
Two days later, Hungary's government press office reacted to the Freedom House report. It said "freedom of the press fully prevails in Hungary. Every political opinion can find room and be published in the Hungarian press." And it said, "Hungarian citizens can exercise their democratic rights in free elections."
The report also criticized the leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. It said that populist leaders in both Poland and Hungary had attacked constitutional courts and sought to weaken the system of checks and balances.
The Freedom House said the "spectacular breakdown of democracy in these countries should serve as a warning about the fragility of the institutions that are necessary for liberal democracy."
Health of democracy in Russia
Russia had one of the report's lowest ratings. Yet Freedom House says a highly developed civil society continues to exist there, along with some independent media.
But a former Russian central bank official disagrees. Sergey Aleksashenko now works at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He spoke to VOA on Skype.
"We say that there was some freedom of Internet. But if you move that 80 percent of (the) Russian population that receives news from television, and there is no, any television news station that is not controlled by the government, then OK, you may argue there is some freedom. Of course, there is. But it's not the freedom, it's not the freedom of information and in my personal view, it's a serious misjudgment of what's going on in Russia."
Democracy in other areas
In the Balkans, the democracy scores for four countries dropped over the past year. Two improved: Montenegro and Croatia.
Sergey Aleksashenko said Balkan countries should not be compared to Western Europe. He noted they have had to create systems, governmental and state cultures since the end of Communist rule. He said that is not an easy process.
Freedom House once again described Kyrgyzstan as a "Consolidated Authoritarian Regime." The country had been removed from the classification after competitive parliamentary elections in 2011.
The report said corruption in Eurasia dropped in five of the 12 countries, but reached new lows in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Freedom House pointed to progress in Ukraine, Romania and Kosovo. It said the Romanian government dealt with problems in the voting process during its 2015 elections. And it said both Ukraine and Kosovo enacted minor structural reforms. But the group said the two countries face obstacles that could stop the progress.
I'm Anne Ball.
VOA's Mariama Diallo reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
prevail – v. to be or become effective
checks and balances – n. a system that prevents one part of the government from controlling too much power
spectacular – adj. causing wonder or excitement
fragility – adj. something easily broken or destroyed
norms – n. average; normal value
shallow – adj. having little depth
tap into – v. to use something in a way that leads to good results
obstacle – n. barrier