By Ilaria Sacco
Democracy is losing currency while an antidemocratic turn is moving forward in Europe, states Freedom House, an NGO that conducts research on democracy and political freedom. Its annual report, Nations in Transit, measures progress and setbacks in democratization in 29 countries from Central Europe to Central Asia. The 2021 edition was named “The Antidemocratic Turn” as findings indicate that during the past year 18 countries suffered declines in their democracy scores. On the contrary, only 6 countries improved their scores. This constitutes the 17th consecutive year of overall decline in Nations in Transit, and the number of countries classified as democracies is at its lowest point in the history of this report. Startling statistics that concern also the Union.
Eurasia: democracy under attack
“Countries all over the region are turning away from democracy or find themselves trapped in cycle of setbacks and partial recoveries”, warns the report. The situation appears severe both in Europe and Eurasia but with some differences. The expansion of antidemocratic forces is no stranger to the Eastern part, while it is more unexpected in Central Europe. Here, some countries have experienced the steepest decline ever. Leaving aside them, which will be further discussed, it is now being assessed how democracy has been under attack in Eurasia.
2020 has not been a simple year for Russia: the fraudulent constitutional referendum, the attempted murder of Aleksey Navalny and the suppression of the protests have worsened its democracy’s score. Freedom House attributes a National Democratic Governance (NDG) to every country, a rating based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. Russia now represents the lowest possible. On the same wavelength, Belarus has experienced a brutal escalation towards a more severe authoritarian regime led by Lukašėnka during 2020, and its NDG is set at 1. The abovementioned countries were already “consolidated authoritarian regime” but what the report underlines is that this escalation was experienced also in countries where there had been hope for change. This is the case of Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or the Balkans.
Eurasia had been giving proof of refusing democratic principles and values with the adoption of “authoritarian counter-norms”. While antidemocratic leaders become more numerous and credible, democratic ones should undertake more actions. Finally, deeper troubles come from the antidemocratic turn emerging even inside the border of the Union.
Hungary and Poland
Freedom House puts what happened in Hungary and Poland during 2020 to the fore.
For what concerns Hungary, the country has registered the biggest decline ever and it is not assessed as a democracy anymore. The Nations in Transit 2021 argues that now it is ranked among “Transitional/Hybrid Regimes” and its democracy score has risen to a critical level (3 out of 7). The discriminating factor is, no doubt, the absence of a free and pluralistic press world. This has gotten worse during the pandemic, seizing the advantages that have permitted the government to expand powers, without meeting any limits.
Poland is still treated as a democracy but an “antidemocratic learning process” is in progress now. The quality of democratic governance is deteriorating, and 2020 marked the lowest score in Nations in Transit. With regards to issues as the rights of LGBT+ people and women, Warsaw has a primacy, standing as the most restrictive country.
In addition, 2020 was the year marked by the negotiations concerning the rule of law mechanism. Brussels has finally adopted a mechanism to protect its budget from breaches to the principles of the rule of law. What Poland and Hungary tried to do is to challenge its political nature, arguing that there is no commonly agreed definition.
A new start?
2020 has involved light and shadow that shown democracy is an act, and not a state, as John Lewis once said. While the world was suffering one of the worst crises ever, some leaders have tried to slide into authoritarianism. However, proofs of deep engagement of the citizens were registered, and the defense of democracy has never faded in the background. We must be vigilant; this is what Freedom House is saying. An anti-democratic turn is occurring outside and inside the Union and we must be alert. As European citizens, we must invest on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which aims to face challenges such as authoritarianism and rising extremism. With this new major pan-European democratic exercise, we have the opportunity to remember that democracy remains always an act to defend