This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Freedom House has assailed crackdowns on protesters in “authoritarian states,” such as Russia and Iran, but also criticized traditional defenders of democracy — including the United States — for turning their backs on traditional safeguard roles to pursue “populist agendas.”
In its annual report released on March 4, the Washington-based human rights watchdog also said that twice as many countries suffered setbacks relating to political rights and civil liberties in 2019 than those making gains, marking what it called the “14th consecutive year of deterioration in global freedom.”
The country-by-country review, titled A Leaderless Struggle For Democracy, said North Macedonia ranked among nations recording the biggest gains in scores for rights and liberties, and it also cited hopeful signs with new leaders in Ukraine and Armenia.
It said, meanwhile, that of the 49 countries listed as “not free,” Turkmenistan and Tajikistan ranked among the 10 worst.
“Democracy is under assault around the globe, and the effects are evident not just in authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Iran, but also in countries with a long track record of upholding basic rights and freedoms,” the report said.
“Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world,” it said.
“At the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest. In fact, such leaders — including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies — are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”
In Russia, the report said, the ruling United Russia party won all of the year’s gubernatorial elections, mainly by preventing viable opposition candidates from running.
“Even in the Moscow City Council elections, which featured a successful strategic-voting campaign organized by dissident leader Aleksei Navalny, the votes lost by United Russia largely went to Kremlin-approved alternatives,” the report said.
The report likewise faulted parliamentary elections in Belarus and Uzbekistan, saying they “also shut out any genuine opposition.”
In Kazakhstan, it noted that longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev transferred power but lamented that it went to a hand-picked successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, “through a rigged election” and that a violent crackdown occurred when protests broke out against the move.
Freedom House also said that, in Montenegro and Serbia, “independent journalists, opposition figures, and other perceived foes of the government faced ongoing harassment, intimidation, and sometimes violence,” moves leading to large protests in both countries.
Still, the report cited some hopeful indications in the region and within the former Soviet sphere.
It said that “despite the grim picture overall, some positive signs were evident in several of the region’s ‘partly free’ environments.”
Newly elected leaders who came to office as reform candidates — including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian of Armenia and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine — “took initial steps to uproot the kleptocratic forces that have long stymied their countries’ democratic aspirations,” according to the report.
In Iran, the report said security forces killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands “in a bid to stamp out anti-government protests” in November.
It said authorities there “set a worrying new precedent with a near-complete Internet shutdown that suppressed media coverage and ordinary communications during the crisis.”
Ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have borne the brunt of government abuses in both democracies and authoritarian states, the report said.
It said the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken its “Hindu nationalist agenda to a new level,” affecting different segments of its Muslim population, “threatening the democratic future of a country long seen as a potential bulwark of freedom in Asia and the world.”
It called China’s treatment of its Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking indigenous people in Xinjiang Province “one of the year’s most appalling examples of domestic repression,” labeling it a campaign of “cultural annihilation.”
The report criticized the United States, which it said democracy advocates have traditionally turned to for support.
It said the administration of President Donald Trump has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights.
The report said that, while Trump has denounced “authoritarian abuses” in countries such as Iran and Venezuela, “he has excused clear violations by traditional security partners such as Turkey and Egypt.”
“He has also given a pass to tyrannical leaders whom he hopes to woo diplomatically, including Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un in North Korea.”