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Nations in Transit 2020: Dropping the Democratic Facade

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Freedom House
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Dropping the democratic facade in Europe and Eurasia


Zselyke Csaky

Research Director, Europe and Eurasia

Nations in Transit 2020: Table of Contents
*A growing number of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe have dropped even the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy. *

As the democratic consensus of the post–Cold War order has given way to great-power competition and the pursuit of self-interest, these politicians have stopped hiding behind a facade of nominal compliance. They are openly attacking democratic institutions and attempting to do away with any remaining checks on their power.

In the region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, this shift has accelerated assaults on judicial independence, threats against civil society and the media, the manipulation of electoral frameworks, and the hollowing out of parliaments, which no longer fulfill their role as centers of political debate and oversight of the executive. Antidemocratic leaders in the region continue to pay lip service to the skeletal, majoritarian element of democracy—claiming that they act according to the will of the people—but they do so only to justify their concentration of power and escalating violations of political rights and civil liberties.

**These developments have contributed to a stunning democratic breakdown in the 29 countries covered by Nations in Transit.****There are fewer democracies in the region today than at any point since the annual report was launched in 1995. **The erosion has left citizens especially vulnerable to further rights abuses and power grabs associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic disintegration

The breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, which experienced the greatest gains after the end of the Cold War.

In Poland, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has been waging a war against the judiciary in an attempt to convert it into a pliant political tool. After devoting its initial years in office to an illegal takeover of the country’s constitutional court and the council responsible for judicial appointments, the PiS government started persecuting individual judges in 2019. By early 2020, judges who criticized the government’s overhaul or simply applied European Union (EU) law correctly were subjected to disciplinary action. Such an attack on a core tenet of democracy—that there are legal limits on a government’s power, enforced by independent courts—would have been unimaginable in Europe before PiS made it a reality.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary has similarly dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions. After centralizing power, tilting the electoral playing field, taking over much of the media, and harassing critical civil society organizations since 2010, Orbán moved during 2019 to consolidate control over new areas of public life, including education and the arts. The 2020 adoption of an emergency law that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely has further exposed the undemocratic character of Orbán’s regime. Hungary’s decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked in Nations in Transit; it was one of the three democratic frontrunners as of 2005, but in 2020 it became the first country to descend by two regime categories and leave the group of democracies entirely.

Meanwhile in the Balkans, years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed by Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Milo Djukanović in Montenegro have tipped those countries over the edge—for the first time since 2003, they are no longer categorized as democracies in Nations in Transit. This change comes at a time when the EU’s accession process is mired in disagreements and no longer serves as a lodestar for democratic reform, and when great-power politics and transactional diplomacy are turning the Balkans into a geostrategic chessboard. The increased presence of authoritarian powers like Russia, China, and Turkey in the region has spurred some reengagement by the United States, but it too has increasingly focused on backroom deals, deemphasizing any shared commitment to democracy.