The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The war in Ukraine underscores a moment of democratic crisis

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As their offensive in Ukraine’s east intensifies, some Russians are hoisting a new-old emblem in areas they capture: The Soviet flag. The red banner with that hammer and sickle has reportedly been waved by pro-Russian fighters in the breakaway region of Luhansk and adorned the sides of Russian military vehicles motoring to the front lines.

The intended symbolism is clear — the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the view of its aggressors, is an act of reclamation and restoration. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” questions Ukraine’s right to even exist as an independent nation. His proxies on state media peddle visions of Russia forging a new union encompassing Belarus and Ukraine. And lurking behind it all is a powerful nostalgia — not necessarily for a life under communism, but for what it meant to belong to a globe-straddling power like the Soviet Union.

Such visions send ripples through the post-Soviet world. A handful of countries once in Moscow’s orbit are doing their best to toe a different line. The Baltic states, members of both NATO and the European Union, have flung themselves into the resisting the Russian advance next door; tiny Estonia, for example, has already committed nearly 1 percent of its total gross domestic product in support of Ukraine’s fight. They comprise the spearhead of a galvanized Western response to Putin’s war.

But beyond the conflict, there’s a deeper disquiet in many other countries that were once in the Soviet sphere. A new report from Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that tracks democracy around the world, found that only six of 29 countries spanning from Central Europe to Central Asia managed to maintain a “consolidated” democracy, while most others drifted toward authoritarianism or a bleak “gray zone” where the trappings of democracy truss up illiberal or autocratic political project. This is certainly on view in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently won reelection in a political context widely seen as unfair and stacked against the opposition.

The war in Ukraine and a ‘turning point in history’

Freedom House marked the 18th consecutive year of democratic decline in this region, a trendline that dovetails with the organization’s broader prognostications about the ailing state of democracy the world over. But the countries in question in this report matter as a kind of bellwether: After the end of the Cold War, the pursuit of liberal democracy in many states once under the Soviet yoke captured the imagination of American strategists and observers, and seemed to portend a new, happy era of global politics. That liberal heyday, though, has now clearly passed.

“In this emerging era, liberal democracy no longer prevails as the assumed goal of national political development,” the Freedom House report notes. “Increasingly, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia are headed toward two different destinations: the abyss of full-blown autocracy and the gray zone of hybrid governance, where ostensibly democratic structures belie undemocratic practices.”

Freedom House deploys a scoring system that rates individual countries on criteria like the integrity of electoral processes, the strength of civil society and the independence of the judiciary. Across the board, it found worrying declines. In autocratic states from Belarus to the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, “longtime despots stamp out dissent and fortify themselves against perceived foreign and domestic enemies.” Meanwhile, even relatively healthy democracies in places like Slovenia and Slovakia have been “buffeted by the corrosive effects of illiberalism and corruption.”

At the heart of the storyline is Russia under Putin. Not only has the Russian leader embarked on a ruthless campaign of repression at home, rapidly transitioning what was a “soft dictatorship” into a “raw dictatorship” — as Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz told Today’s WorldView — but Kremlin influence operations have also played a significant role in undermining democratic governments in Russia’s neighborhood. The war in Ukraine, of course, may derail the country’s slow, fitful progress toward strengthening its own democracy.

“Ukraine, while not a perfect democracy, was relatively speaking one of the countries that had been doing fairly well in the region in general,” Abramowitz said. “Obviously now with the invasion, the future of democracy in Ukraine is very much in question.”

Abramowitz added that he his “hopeful that this will be a turning point” — that Ukraine’s defiance of the Russian war machine and the Western bloc’s newfound unity can embolden action against autocrats and sharpen policies that weaken their oligarchic supporters. But, the report adds, more needs to be done to strengthen democracy internally, including within the European Union, where officials in Brussels struggle to arrest the democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary and Poland.

Similar concerns also exist in Washington, consumed, as it is, by political polarization and its own illiberal assaults on democracy. Some commentators urge Americans to see their politics in line with countries elsewhere. “If the United States seeks to stem the decline of liberal democracy abroad and patch the flaws in our democracy at home, we must treat them as part of a single set of related problems, unimpeded by borders, languages, or religions,” wrote Ryan Suto, a senior policy adviser at FairVote Action, which campaigns for electoral reforms in the United States. “That is, support for the rule of law and liberal democracy must be valued in both foreign policy and domestic policy.”

Others worry that if Putin emerges from the Ukraine war in any way victorious, it could spell trouble for democracies elsewhere. “The war in Ukraine impacts the American people in the sense that, if Vladimir Putin succeeds, then such people here — those anti-democratic forces — will succeed as well,” political theorist Francis Fukuyama said in a recent interview. “I believe they actually pose a real and present danger to American democracy, and if they’re not beaten back we could be facing a serious constitutional crisis in this country in 2024.”

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