Nations in Transit: The Antidemocratic Turn (2021)
Zselyke Csaky; Freedom House
Attacks on democratic institutions are spreading faster than ever in Europe and Eurasia, and coalescing into a challenge to democracy itself.
Incumbent leaders and ruling parties are corrupting governance and spreading antidemocratic practices across the region that stretches from Central Europe to Central Asia. These actions are opportunistic, but are often cloaked in an ideological agenda. And as they become increasingly common, they are fueling a deterioration in conditions that will have global implications for the cause of human freedom.
Democracy has never been the only game in town, but for more than two decades after the transitions that ended the Cold War, leaders and politicians continued to pay lip service to the democratic model. Over the past decade, however, amid the erosion of the liberal democratic order and the rise of authoritarian powers, the idea of democracy as an aspirational end point has started to lose currency in many capitals. Existing institutions’ failure to address pressing societal concerns, increasing polarization, and growing inequality have fueled uncertainty and anger, and major democracies’ mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided additional fodder to those interested in exploiting disillusionment with the traditional champions of democratic governance.
In this period of change and discontent, antidemocratic leaders in the region have started to redefine norms and renegotiate the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A contestation that began with Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy” in the mid-2000s, and continued with Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” a decade later, has expanded, and forms of governance that are decidedly not democratic are taking root. Antidemocratic politicians are also sharing practices and learning from one another, accelerating the turn toward alternatives.
Countries all over the region are turning away from democracy or find themselves trapped in cycle of setbacks and partial recoveries. In the 2021 edition of Nations in Transit, covering the events of 2020, a total of 18 countries suffered declines in their democracy scores; only 6 countries’ scores improved, while 5 countries experienced no net change. This marked the 17th consecutive year of overall decline in Nations in Transit, leaving the number of countries that are designated as democracies at its lowest point in the history of the report.