"Eastern Europe: The State of Democracy and Freedom"

Article excerpt

Nadia M. Diuk is Vice President, Programs on Europe and Eurasia, Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean, at the National Endowment for Democracy. She presented this analysis as testimony before the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and just over twenty years since the countries of the region we previously called Eastern Europe stepped onto the path of freedom and democracy having cast out the Communist systems that kept them as "Captive Nations" and shackled them to the Soviet Union. This is a good time to rethink the terminology we use when we speak of the post-communist states. Thankfully the old Eastern Europe has disappeared, and has been replaced by the new Central Europe with states such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia now fully integrated into the European Union and all of its institutions. Entry into Europe, with all its institutions, has proven to be one of the main guarantors of freedom and democracy in these states an aim that we should support for the countries still on the outside. For this reason I am pleased to see that the title of this hearing refers to "Eastern Europe." We should view Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and even Russia as the new Eastern Europe, and also consider the inclusion of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are, after all, already members of the Council of Europe.

Backsliding and Reversal

Looking around the region, I would like to present for you a picture of the state of freedom and democracy that has been informed by reports, discussions, and feedback from the many non- governmental groups NED supports. Although there have been some achievements in the past couple of years, the general trend has been a slow backsliding and in some cases dramatic reversals in the topics under our review. In four of the Western Balkan states that are still outside of the EU Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina the leaders are well aware of the need to improve their electoral systems, hold politicians accountable, continue dialogue on reconciliation, promote tolerance, ensure the rights of minorities, arrest war criminals, and come to terms with the past. The close proximity of the EU and active interest of EU officials in assessing these countries' eligibility for EU membership has had a positive and sobering effect. NED programs in these countries have focused on support for numerous independent media outlets and the considerable efforts of civic groups to promote interethnic tolerance, as well as programs to advance the process of ethnic and historic reconciliation and to increase trust and participation in the political process. A good proportion of NED support in the Western Balkans has gone to prodemocracy youth groups. Moving to the east, the deteriorating state of democracy and freedom in the Southern Caucasus is of continuing concern. Despite the welcome release of the imprisoned youth movement bloggers and a leading independent journalist earlier this year, arrests of democracy activists continue in Azerbaijan, where the overall trend is a slow and painful decline of political pluralism and civil society. Constitutional amendments adopted in March 2009 removed presidential term limits, the November 2010 parliamentary elections were considered to be the worst ever, and an attempt to introduce an extremely restrictive NGO law in 2009 was diverted only as a result of international pressure. Civic activists and human rights defenders continue to suffer harassment, and the freedom of association is non-existent. Many young activists have recently been detained usually on trumped up charges of narcotics possession, hooliganism or other fabricated criminal offences. One youth activist imprisoned in 2005, Ruslan Bashirli, is still in jail. The prospects for democracy and freedom look more hopeful in Armenia, where protest rallies of up to 15,000 people have taken place recently and the political prisoners who were held after the 2008 protests have been released. …