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Decades after the USSR collapsed, Eurasian countries struggle to maintain democracy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an overview now on democracy in the region once dominated by the former Soviet Union. The old communist empire covered what are now 29 nations, which got a fresh chance at freedom when the Soviets collapsed, countries from Kazakhstan in Asia to Eastern European nations like Hungary. Three decades later, the think tank Freedom House finds that some of them are democratic, while most have some version of the old power structures and some are backsliding. The president of Freedom House is Michael Abramowitz, and he's on the line. Welcome.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Great to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: What has made it hard to live up to the promise of that great moment around 1990, '91, '92, the moment of the Soviet fall?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, it's a sad story, Steve. As you indicated, this was a region that had been very hopeful in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the collapse of the Soviet empire. And we had a lot of hopes for democracy, for freedom. People thought that democracy was going to be the end station for this region. But things have turned in a bad direction. And essentially our report shows that democracy is losing ground to autocracy. A big part of the story is candidly Vladimir Putin. You know, Putin has turned Russia from what had been a hopeful democracy into one of the most repressive governments in the world. And his influence is getting vast in the region.

INSKEEP: I guess we should underline here democracy is not binary. You're in or your out. It's on a kind of a sliding scale. Russia was never such a great democracy, but they had elections. They had free media. They had a lot of things going for them 20 years ago.

ABRAMOWITZ: That's right. Democracy is never fully achieved. It's an end state. And our report identifies different kinds of democracies. You have, you know, consolidated democracies, which are the strongest democracies. And that's a country, you know, like Poland. And then you have - what's really interesting about the region is that you have more of what we call hybrid democracies, which are democracies kind of in name only, that they have free elections - or sometimes free - but they also don't respect the rule of law. They have undermined the independent judiciary. The media - the news media is out of - is under consistent attack. The elections are manipulated. And so you have a - you don't really have a lot of really true democracies in the region, save for about 10 out of 29.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of a country like Hungary, which would have been considered much more democratic 10 years ago than it is now.

ABRAMOWITZ: Absolutely. Hungary, I think, is a great case study of what was once a strong democracy, which under Viktor Orban has become really a one-party state. We had an election - there was an election there recently. Orban won very easily. And by all accounts, he's probably a popular person in Hungary. And I suspect that many Hungarians support him. But the reality is that he won election only by really putting a hard tilt on the media. He controls the media there. The opposition had no really fresh, fair opportunity to make their points. And so he really kind of controls the situation. Another feature of Hungary is gerrymandering, which we have in our own country. You know, he's manipulated the system so that even if he gets, say, 49% or 50% of the vote, he'll have many more seats in the legislature. So he really has his thumbs on the scale in Hungary.

INSKEEP: You did point out, though, this undemocratic leader nevertheless seems - as best we can tell given the unfair system - seems popular. And your report does talk about widespread dissatisfaction with democracy, even in the countries that are still counted among democracies. Are people, the people at large, giving up on this system?

ABRAMOWITZ: That's something I fear. I hope that's not the case. I think you have a situation in Belarus, for instance - that's another case. That's a purely authoritarian setting. They had an election - it wasn't fair - two years ago, but it's pretty clear the opposition won. And millions of people came onto the streets to protest what was really a farcical election. And that protests were put down by a lot of repression, a lot of violence. So to me, that says there's still a demand for democracy. But right now, the authoritarians are putting their thumbs on the scale.

INSKEEP: How were Ukrainians doing at democracy before Russia invaded?

ABRAMOWITZ: Ukraine is a great story. Ukraine was one of the stronger democracies in the region up until the invasion. It was not perfect, but it was building a strong democracy. It was building the institutions of a free state. They have made it repeatedly clear over the last 10 years that they did not want to - the voters of Ukraine did not want to live in a country that was dominated by Russia. And so I think one of the major reasons that Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine is that he was scared about the presence of a strong democracy right on the Russian borders. And so that's what's very sad about the situation in Ukraine. I really think that democracy is on the line right now, among other issues on the line. But democracy is definitely at risk in Ukraine right now.

INSKEEP: When you look across this former Soviet bloc, these dozens of nations, many of which are not democratic at all or not very democratic, is there a success story you'd like to point to?

ABRAMOWITZ: Well...

INSKEEP: That was a revealingly long pause. I'm just going to say that right now.

ABRAMOWITZ: I'm stumped. I think there are several countries. The Czech Republic - let me say the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic is an interesting story. They had a lot of early success under Vaclav Havel. Then they turned in a more kind of - not so authoritative but one of these kind of mixed models where they had a leader that was, you know, like Orban trying to kind of control everything. But he's been thrown out in an election there, and the Czech Republic is moving in a good direction. So the point is that there is hope, and there are a lot of other smaller countries - I'm also heartened by what's happening in the Baltics. The Baltics - Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia - these are countries that are still very strong democracies. And the people and the leaders of the Baltics are very supportive of what's - of the Ukrainian people. And what's happening in the Baltics also gives me hope.

INSKEEP: And those are actual former Soviet republics. Mr. Abramowitz, thanks so much.

ABRAMOWITZ: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House, which put out a report on democracy or the lack of it in nations of the former Soviet bloc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.