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Hungary’s descent into the Partly Free category in Freedom House’s just-released annual assessment of global media independence should set off alarms for those who believed the country’s press freedom was firmly established.
March 28, 2012
by Katherin Machalek
Research Analyst, Nations in Transit
Last week, the authorities in Belarus executed two young men who had been convicted of an April 2011 subway bombing in Minsk. While the deeply flawed trial and the swift, primitive nature of the men’s deaths may have disturbed the international community, they were not unusual for Belarus, which has consistently hovered close to the worst possible ratings on issues like the rule of law in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit reports.
March 07, 2012
by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick*
At a meeting of cultural workers on February 26, following his landslide reelection victory on February 12, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that the Era of Might and Happinesshas officially begun in Turkmenistan. Thus ends the Era of Great Renewal, as the Turkmen leader dubbed the first five years of his reign. That in turn was preceded by the Golden Age of the late president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov. Evidently, no more reform is needed, and the people are supposed to be happy with what they have.
February 29, 2012
by Ilya Kunitski*
When Belarus’s authoritarian ruler, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, goes to ski in Russia, it is rarely just for a nice vacation. The southern Russian resort town of Sochi, planned site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is a favored spot for Belarusian and Russian officials to gather and discuss bilateral relations in a relaxing setting. Lukashenka’s trip to Sochi last month was no exception, with official Belarusian media duly reporting that his time on the slopes would be combined with a working visit.
Little information on the details of the trip emerged, aside from video and photographs of Lukashenka skiing together with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev.
Photo Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
February 08, 2012
by Katherin Machalek and Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska*
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet today with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev to sign a strategic agreements focused on energy and raw materials. Merkel, whose country has been cultivating access to Kazakhstan’s natural resources for some time, is not likely to devote much of the discussion to her guest’s domestic troubles. Nazarbayev prefers to present Kazakhstan as an eager business partner, committed to its international obligations and open to gradual reforms, and foreign governments and companies often have an economic interest in accepting this image at face value. However, recent events suggest that popular frustration with the country’s authoritarian system is becoming more difficult to ignore.
On January 28, hundreds of Kazakhs—some estimates put the figure as high as 1,000—took to the streets of Almaty in a rare antigovernment protest, shouting for their leader to leave office. Such demonstrations are exceedingly unusual in Kazakhstan, where most forms of political organization are effectively banned, and the president, affectionately referred to as “Papa” by his people, enjoys an official approval rating of nearly 90 percent. But the veneer of contentment was cracked on December 16, when police in the western city of Zhanaozen opened fire on striking oil workers, killing at least 17. The confrontation occurred as authorities attempted to mount independence day celebrations in the town square, which the workers had occupied for some seven months. The violence, captured on video, sparked public outrage and led to a harsh security clampdown in the surrounding area.
Worker protests gained momentum over the subsequent weeks, spreading throughout Kazakhstan’s western oil region and taking on a distinctly antigovernment tone. A union organizer told the New York Times that the protests were “no longer about money.” After the shootings, he said, “it was about dignity. After so many months [of strikes], the economic questions fell by the wayside.” Thus by January 28, protesters were chanting “Freedom!” and “Nazarbayev must go!”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev | Photo Credit: Olaffpomona
Nevertheless, Nazarbayev’s 20-year-old regime appears satisfied with its existing, well-tested playbook. It continues to embrace the rhetoric of democracy and devote considerable resources to portraying itself as a democratic state, both at home and abroad. Despite the steady decay of its democratic institutions, which at this point exist in name only, and the deterioration of its already appalling human rights record, Kazakhstan’s massive energy wealth and careful balancing of relations with all world powers mean that it rarely faces serious scrutiny or criticism from the international community. In a sign of foreign governments’ priorities, Kazakhstan was awarded the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010, over the objections of human rights organizations.
Meanwhile, in the absence of external pressure, Nazarbayev has been employing the usual tricks to paper over the damage to his domestic stature caused by the unrest in Zhanaozen. For example, the president vetoed a January 6 decision by the Constitutional Council to cancel the January 15 parliamentary elections in Zhanaozen, where a state of emergency had been declared. He explained that the decision would have violated the voting rights of the city’s residents. Given the fact that the Constitutional Council is appointed by the president and his rubberstamp parliament, the ruling and veto were most likely conjured up for the benefit of Nazarbayev’s image management.
Another old strategy can be seen in the outcome of the January 15 vote. Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party had monopolized the parliament since 2007, making it an easy target for criticism. A reform law in 2009 paved the way for a return to a tightly controlled multiparty system, guaranteeing the second-place party seats in the parliament even if it does not reach the 7 percent vote threshold. In the January 2012 elections, the regime paid another ostentatious but ultimately meaningless tribute to pluralism by reporting that not one but two parties other than Nur Otan had passed the 7 percent barrier. Needless to say, both of these parties—the business-oriented Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan—are decidedly pro-Nazarbayev. Leaders of Kazakhstan’s genuine opposition parties, Alga and Azat, were quickly arrested as protests challenging the election results emerged in the weeks following the vote. But the news that one-party rule was ending in Kazakhstan made headlines at an opportune moment for the regime.
The president’s calculated response to the recent, embarrassing eruption of dissent in his country will have been familiar to anyone who observed the staged drama surrounding his future status in early 2011. Preempting any Arab Spring–inspired democratic sentiment, he feigned humility and allegiance to democratic values by vetoing a long-anticipated constitutional amendment that would have triggered a referendum to extend his current term until 2020. After the one-party parliament rejected its leader’s veto just one week later, Nazarbayev appealed to the Constitutional Council, which ruled that the proposed amendment did, in fact, violate the constitution. (The council also politely noted that the president should feel free to reject its decision.) As an alternative to the proposed term extension, Nazarbayev called for a snap presidential election in April, almost two year ahead of schedule, catching the opposition unprepared. The president explained that his plan took account of both “the will of our people and fidelity to democratic principles.” With the elaborate performance finally completed, Nazarbayev enjoyed another landslide victory, confirming his presidency through 2016 while promoting the narrative of a modest leader bound by the checks and balances of a genuine democracy.
As in Russia, where restive citizens are contemplating the possibility of another six or even 12 years under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan’s people may be losing patience with their 70-year-old eternal leader. Signs point to an escalation in protests, with another unsanctioned antigovernment rally scheduled for February 25. But with little outside pressure, ample resources, and a glaring lack of new ideas, Nazarbayev and other authoritarian leaders of the former Soviet Union are simply recycling their time-honored tactics, apparently holding fast to the assumption that the next decade will be much like the last. Given what has happened in the Middle East over the past year, interested parties like Merkel would be wise to start hedging their bets.
* Katherin Machalek is a research analyst, and Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska is the project director, for Nations in Transit.
February 02, 2012
by Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker*
Writing on the revolutions of Central Europe in the New York Review of Books two decades ago, scholar Timothy Garton Ash made the observation that “the crucial medium was television. In Europe, at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions.”
January 20, 2012
by David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington*
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal. At a minimum, we can say that developments in the Middle East touched off the most serious challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. While the challenges today are far more complex than in 1989, the basic theme of captive peoples seeking freedom after decades of oppression is very much the same.
Posted at 05:38 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Democratic Governance, Elections, Freedom House, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Religious Freedom, Rule of Law, Women's Rights
December 21, 2011
by Christopher Walker (@Walker_CT)
Vice President for Strategy and Analysis
Screengrab courtesy Al Jazeera YouTube Page
International attention has turned to Eurasia in recent days, as Kazakhstan uses deadly violence and draconian information controls to crush widening labor unrest in its strategic oil region, and Russia faces the most serious popular challenge to its puppet-theater political system in many years. But long before the current shocks, when things were looking more placid in both countries, there was abundant evidence of trouble to come. Six months ago, Freedom House published a report that pointed to the glaring vulnerabilities of dead-end authoritarian regimes across the former Soviet Union. It noted that these entrenched authoritarian systems exhibited many of the same features that led to the collapse of their Middle Eastern counterparts in the Arab Spring.
Technorati Tags: Arab Spring, civil society, democracy, economic opportunity, economic reform, Eurasia, Freedom House, human rights, Kazakhstan, media, modern authoritarianism, Nations in Transit, Nursultan Nazarbayev, oil, oil workers, press freedom, reform, Russia, strikes, violence, Vladimir Putin
December 14, 2011
by Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska
Project Director, Nations in Transit
On December 1, Kyrgyzstan inaugurated Almazbek Atambayev as its new president in the country’s first orderly transfer of power since independence. Atambayev won more than 60 percent of the ballots in an election that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) characterized as peaceful, though suffering from significant irregularities, particularly in the vote tabulation process and the compiling of voter lists.
Technorati Tags: Almazbek Atambayev, Belarus, civil society, democracy, elections, electoral campaign, Freedom House, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, modern authoritarianism, Nations in Transit, OSCE, Roza Otunbayeva, Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska
December 09, 2011
by Mary McGuire and Sarah Trister*
The year 2011 will be remembered as one of immense political and social change around the world, particularly the Middle East. On this International Human Rights Day, Freedom House looks back at a few of the best and worst developments of the year with respect to their long-term implications for the global state of human rights.
Posted at 02:32 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Modern Authoritarianism, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Corruption, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Isolationism, Middle East and North Africa , Minority Rights, Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Western Europe , Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
December 02, 2011
by Paula Schriefer
Vice President for Global Programs
Last week I joined a delegation of leading freedom of expression organizations in Hungary to assess the impact of much criticized media legislation that went into effect in January. Discussions with dozens of journalists, media officials, regulation authorities, and government representatives validated the serious concerns expressed by international press freedom experts since the law was passed last December.
Technorati Tags: Council of Europe, delegation, European Parliament, Fidesz government, Freedom House, freedom of expression, Hungary, international criticism, journalists, media legislation, OSCE, Paula Schriefer, press freedom, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Viktor Orban
November 23, 2011
by Melanie Dominski
Sr. Program Associate, Freedom of Expression Campaign
Two years ago today, in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, 100 armed guards overtook a civilian convoy and executed the passengers in what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 57 victims, 32 were journalists, making the incident the deadliest single attack against journalists on record and earning the Philippines the second-place slot on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries for members of the media. In the course of this brutal attack, at least four female journalists were allegedly raped prior to being executed; virtually all of the female victims reportedly suffered genital mutilation, and many of the victims were beheaded.
Posted at 10:21 AM in Civil Society, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, United States, Western Europe | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Andal Amaptuan Jr. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Anna Politkovskaya, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, freedom of expression, human rights, human rights abuses, IFEX, impunity, International Day to End Impunity, International Freedom of Expression Exchange, journalist, Maguindanao massacre, Melanie Dominski, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, press freedom, Russia, Saleem Shahzad, Valentin Valdes Espinosa
November 03, 2011
At an October 22 briefing designed to tout the enhanced relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan ahead of the first visit to the Central Asian country by a U.S. secretary of state in seven years, a senior State Department official was asked whether this strategic partner was still boiling people alive. The fact that this question needed to be asked is a worrisome sign for U.S. moral authority.
Technorati Tags: Afghanistan, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Freedom House, Freedom House, minority rights, modern authoritarianism, Northern Distribution Network, political freedom, President Barack Obama, President Islam Karimov, religious freedom, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Tajikistan, United States, Uzbekistan
November 01, 2011
by David J. Kramer
President of Freedom House
Never before has Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka faced an economic crisis in his country like the one he bears responsibility for today, with a collapsing currency, severe shortages, and dwindling hard currency reserves. Never before has he been under more pressure from the European Union and United States through sanctions for his human rights abuses and from Russia through its cut-off of subsidies. Together, these unprecedented developments are leading some observers to suggest that Lukashenka’s days might be numbered.
Technorati Tags: Aleksandr Lukashenka, Belarus, Central and Eastern Europe, Civil Society, Corruption, David J. Kramer, democracy, economic crisis, economic sanctions, Elections, Eurasia, Freedom House, human rights, Modern Authoritarianism, political prisoners, Rule of Law
October 25, 2011
by Katherin Machalek
Research Analyst and Assistant Editor, Nations in Transit
At the end of this month, national elections will decide who will serve as Kyrgyzstan’s first full-term president since the April 2010 revolution that ousted the increasingly authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev. And at the end of the year, Central Asia’s first and only female president, interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, will also become the first leader in Central Asia to leave her post in a voluntary and peaceful transfer of power.
Democracy advocates, who have regrettably witnessed a great deal of backsliding in the region, have good reason to commend Otunbayeva’s short presidency. Her even-handed approach and personal dedication to pluralism and transparency have allowed Kyrgyzstan to experience possibly the most democratic period in its history. The integrity of Otunbayeva’s leadership has won the interim government a legitimacy that no other regime in Kyrgyzstan’s neighborhood has come close to achieving.
Technorati Tags: Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Corruption, democracy, Elections, Eurasia, Freedom at Issue, Freedom House, Kazakhstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan, Minority Rights, Modern Authoritarianism, Nations in Transit, Otunbayeva, power, Roza Otunbayeva, Rule of Law, Rule of Law, transitional leaders
October 13, 2011
by Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research
*With assistance provided by Elizabeth Kagedan
About a year ago I attended a meeting whose purpose was to showcase newly elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych before an audience consisting mostly of representatives of the world’s largest multinational corporations. Yanukovych’s remarks were carefully crafted to appeal to these guests. But he devoted the bulk of his presentation to an explanation of his commitment to the strengthening of Ukrainian democracy. Ukraine, he declared, would be Western-oriented under his watch. He promised to protect freedom of the press, minority rights, and—here he was especially emphatic—the rule of law.
Technorati Tags: Bolivia, corruption, criminal justice, election, General Sarath Fonseka, Hungary, minority rights, political opposition, President Evo Morales, press freedom, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, prime ministers, prison sentence, prosecution, rule of law, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Ukraine, Yanukovych, Yulia Tymoshenko
October 07, 2011
by Paula Schriefer
Vice President for Global Programs
It is an increasingly common occurrence for repressive countries with dismal human rights records to put themselves forward as hosts for major international forums—whether in the sphere of sports and entertainment or in politics. Think China, who hosted the last summer Olympics, or Russia, who will host the next winter games, or Kazakhstan, who hosted the last Summit of the OSCE. All are examples of countries whose treatment of both its own citizens and its neighbors belies the spirit of human achievement and international cooperation such venues are intended to foster. The latest addition to this phenomenon is Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country in the South Caucasus region with a particularly dismal record on human rights, which has won its bid to host next year’s annual Internet Governance Forum.