17 January 2008 [15:03]

A report released January 16 by the civil rights group Freedom House
laments that global democratization is in retreat after suffering
"a notable setback" in 2007.

The Freedom House survey ranked two Central Asian nations, Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan, as among the "worst of the worst" when it comes to
government repression of individual rights. It also lambasted Russia
for conducting "patently unfair" parliamentary elections, and for
providing "political, moral and material support to [Central Asian]

The title of the annual Freedom in the World survey, Freedom in
Retreat: Is the Tide Turning?, conveyed a strong sense of unease
about the near-term future of civil society development in the world.

"For the past few years, and especially since Ukraine's 2004 Orange
Revolution, a number of the world's most important autocracies
have engaged in what has been called a pushback against democracy
promotion," the report asserted. "The pushback differs from past
strategies of repressive regimes in that it relies on the use of
legal restrictions, tax investigations, bureaucratic regulations and
the like to neutralize opposition political parties and civil society
organizations that seek political change."

The report, which has been published annually since 1972, rates
countries as 'free,' 'partly free,' and 'not free.' In Central Asia,
only Kyrgyzstan is rated as 'partly free.' Kazakhstan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are rated as "not free."

As for the three Caucasus states, Georgia and Armenia were ranked
as "partly free," and Azerbaijan was rated as "not free." Overall,
of the 193 countries surveyed, 90 were deemed "free," 60 were judged
"partly free" and 43 received the "not free" designation. The Freedom
House survey found "evidence of declines in freedom" in 38 countries,
while "only 10 showed positive shifts."

In all, eight countries were labeled "worst of the worst." Joining
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were two perennial rogue states - North
Korea and Libya - along with Burma, Cuba, Somalia and Sudan.

The report by the New York-based organization warned of a "resurgence
of pragmatic, market-oriented, or energy-rich dictatorships,"
a reference to countries like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and

"Strengthened by petroleum-based riches or capital amassed through
long-term trade surpluses, these autocracies are unapologetic and
increasingly assertive, at home and abroad, in declaring that the
paradigm of rights-based governance, as the international community
has long understood it, is not relevant for the 21st century," the
report added.

Russia is the font of much mischief in Central Asia, working actively
to undermine the development of civil society in the region, the report
indicated. "In Kyrgyzstan, Russia has used its influence to obstruct
political reforms in the wake of the country's 2005 political opening,
which was unique in Central Asia," the report stated.

At home, Russian President Vladimir Putin's brand of "managed
democracy" is, in reality, sham democracy, the Freedom House
report suggested, pointing to the country's recent parliamentary
elections. "The Putin regime went out of its way to force parties and
candidates with strong democratic credentials off the parliamentary
ballot," it said.

Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, said that the
world's leading democracies were not doing enough to support civil
society development around the globe. "Democratic governments have
not worked together effectively to counter these [negative] trends,"
Windsor said in a written statement. "Those who support freedom - both
governments as well as non-governmental actors - must get serious
and redouble their efforts to support the frontline defenders of
democracy who are under duress."

The report expressed particular disappointment with President Mikheil
Saakashvili's administration in Georgia, saying the country's
democratization image "was sullied" by the imposition of a state
of emergency and a violent police crackdown on demonstrators." [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Georgia saw both its
political rights and its civil liberties ratings decline due to
the imposition of a state of emergency following antigovernment
demonstrations in November, restrictions on press freedom, and a
systematic campaign to marginalize the political opposition," the
report said.

Although painting a bleak picture for 2008, Freedom House concluded
on an upbeat note. "We should remember that freedom endured dark days
during the time of [Nelson] Mandela [in South Africa] and [Lech] Walesa
[in Poland], much darker than is the case today," the report said.

"The solidarity of democrats from around the world is essential if the
broader momentum toward freedom is to be regained," the report said.

Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central
Asian affairs.