No country in the Caucasus or Central Asia saw its ranking rise in this year's Freedom in the World report, released January 12 by the democratization organization Freedom House.
Kyrgyzstan's political system has deteriorated over the past year, according to Freedom House, which characterized the country as "not free,"slipping from "partly free" in last year's report.
The ratings of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Turkey also all declined. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were among the worst-ranked seven countries in the world, with the lowest scores possible in both political and civil liberties. Central Asia "seems to find no way to bottom out, it just keeps going down and down," said Felice Gaer, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, at an event in Washington, DC marking the official release of the report.
Kyrgyzstan's decline was attributed to an increasing concentration of power in the executive branch of the government, and a new law on religion that bans proselytism, private religious education, and the import or dissemination of religious literature, the report said.
"Central Asia remained one of the [most] repressive areas in the world," the report said. "The decline of Kyrgyzstan from Partly Free to Not Free was of particular concern, as the country seemed to have been embarked on a reformist course at various times in the post-Soviet period."
In the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan was thought of as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," said Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research. "Now it's down with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the rest of the region that is one of the most unfree in the world," he said.
Kyrgyzstan's rating could have been described as "not free" for any of the past three years, said Erica Marat, a political analyst in Washington, DC. However, "most regional experts were reluctant to place Kyrgyzstan into the same catogory as Uzbeksitan and Tajiksitan, arguing that Kyrgyzstan still had elements of free media and active civil society," Marat said. She said that what likely tipped the scales in 2009, in addition to the conduct of presidential election in July, were several attacks in December against journalists and the suspicious death in March of Medet Sadyrkulov, an opposition politician.
Kazakhstan, the report added, "has made no progress toward implementation of reforms it had promised in advance of its assumption of the chairmanship of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]." The report also criticized "a spate of politically motivated libel suits against critical media outlets, a restrictive new internet law, arbitrary arrests of officials and businesspeople" and the arrest and sentencing of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist whose harsh sentence for a vehicular manslaughter conviction was criticized as politically motivated by other human rights defenders.
Freedom House classified Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and the enclaves of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh as "partly free." Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, all the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and the enclave of South Ossetia were declared "not free."
Several other parts of Eurasia saw their rankings decline over the last year. They included South Ossetia, because of "Russia's increased control over the economy and political system, and Russian aid that has fueled rampant corruption among local elites;" Afghanistan's for "a deeply flawed presidential election that included massive fraud, a compromised electoral management body, and low voter turnout due to intimidation;" Iran, because of "strong evidence of fraud in the June 2009 presidential election and the violent suppression of subsequent protests;" Russia for "electoral abuses, declining religious freedom, greater state controls over the presentation of history, and the repeated use of political terror against victims including human rights activists and journalists;" and Turkey for "the Constitutional Court's decision to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party."
Part of the reason for democratization's decline in the region was the "law of unintended consequences" stemming from the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which alarmed leaders around the region that they too could face popular, US-supported overthrows, Puddington said. "I don't think there's any question that what happened in Ukraine had reverberations throughout the former Soviet Union, and those reverberations have been not positive," Puddington said. "Every one of these countries - the countries of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, especially Russia - were all moving in an authoritarian direction when the Orange Revolution took place. But after the Orange Revolution, everything was reinforced and accelerated."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.