The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s not enough to push back against authoritarianism

Police detain demonstrators in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 28 during an protest against the Kremlin's attack against Ukraine. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
5 min

As Western democracies rise to the challenge of defending Ukraine, they are ironically allowing their own democracies to shrivel. Some are sliding further into authoritarianism; others are transitioning into mixed democratic-authoritarian models in which executive power swallows legislative bodies, erodes judicial independence, crushes a free media and squelches dissent.

That grim view comes from Freedom House’s new report, “Nations in Transit 2022,” which makes a powerful case that democracies are going in the wrong direction.

“For years now, authoritarians have been on the offensive, while liberal democratic practices have increasingly been discarded. In relations between states, conflict, coercion, and attacks on the legitimacy of key principles and institutions have proliferated at the expense of good-faith dialogue and the search for common interests” the report explains. “Domestically, demagogues and dictators run roughshod over the rule of law and the separation of powers.”

The report notes that there are plenty of out-and-out authoritarian regimes that are becoming more aggressive, such as Russia and Belarus.

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But others — especially a slew of Central and Eastern European and Eurasian countries — are becoming more authoritarian while maintaining the scaffolding of democratic elections. As the report explains, “for the first time in the 21st century, the prevailing form of governance in the Nations in Transit region is the hybrid regime.” Moreover:

Four democracies have fallen into this gray zone since the unbroken period of democratic decline began in 2004: Hungary, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. During the same period, three authoritarian regimes made democratic strides and joined the ranks of hybrid regimes: Moldova, Kosovo, and now Armenia. . . .
They may be democratic in the minimal sense that they feature regular, competitive elections, but their dysfunctional institutions are unable to deliver the definitive components of a liberal democracy: checks and balances, the rule of law, and robust protections for the rights and liberties of all.

It’s hard not to think of the United States when reading the report. Freedom House notes that Europe is facing movements that replace “the liberal defense of pluralism and individual rights with an exclusionary vision of ethnic, cultural, and national unity.” Certainly, that runs parallel to the MAGA movement’s cult of personality, which tolerates corruption and assaults objective reality on a daily basis. The danger for “nations in transit” — including the United States — is that democracy could become an empty formality without the institutions and values to protect dissent, pluralism and basic human rights.

Since so-called hybrid regimes still hold elections, it is essential for pro-democracy movements to capitalize on these opportunities. Young, fresh figures leading the charge against corruption and the status quo are most likely to succeed. But more than that, Freedom House finds, democratic opposition does not succeed without broad coalitions that defy a regime’s efforts to divide and conquer.

Especially critical to the effort to reverse trends toward illiberalism is a free and independent media. I asked Freedom House’s president, Michael Abramowitz, how the media can help stem the tide of authoritarianism. “First and foremost, by doing their job,” he told me. “A free press that’s not afraid to speak truth to power is non-negotiable in democratic society, because it provides an accessible, independent check on regime propaganda.”

Abramowitz pointed out that “Putin’s extraordinary effort to block ordinary Russians from receiving accurate information about the invasion of Ukraine shows just how important press freedom is to the foundations of democracy — and how scared authoritarians are of free expression and dissenting voices.” He notes that journalism includes everything from “from papers of record to private citizen fact-checkers.” Even those debunking pro-Kremlin trolls and bots on social media have a role to play.

Freedom House recommends a number of steps Western democracies can take to reverse the slide toward illiberalism in Europe and Eurasia. They can expose corruption in authoritarian-minded regimes, use targeted sanctions and withhold investments. They can also offer dissidents refuge when needed and provide funding and neutral observers for free and fair elections. Liberal regimes must also improve their democratic institutions at home, setting a model for others and demonstrating their ability to meet their citizens’ needs.

At times, it seems the West has learned little from the Jan. 6 insurrection and Russia’s dictatorial aggression. While there are vast differences between a dictator such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, an autocrat such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or a far-right ideologue such as presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France, they are all emblematic of a general phenomenon. “There is an enormous and ongoing dissatisfaction in the world with the status quo, which has opened the door for unscrupulous leaders to promote attacks on democracy,” Abramowitz told me. “This applies to democratic countries as well. In some cases, as in France and Hungary, the grievances have to do with cultural or social issues, like immigration; in others, [it’s] resentment over economic policies that have not delivered results.”

While democratic citizens have plenty of reasons for anxiety and dissatisfaction, they must resist the false promises of authoritarians. As Abramowitz explained, “Authoritarians can gain popular support by offering people quick fixes to these complex, systemic challenges. And those so-called ‘fixes’ are either ineffective, repressive, or both.”

The Freedom House report serves as a reminder that defenders of democracy must not simply push back against authoritarian trends; once in power, they must move expeditiously to root out corruption and address problems — such as inequality and racial conflict — that leave people hopeless and easy prey for demagogues. If they don’t, the erosion of democracy will continue.