Nations in Transit 2018: Confronting Illiberalism

Washington, April 12, 2018 — Attacks on opposition parties, the press, and civil society organizations are becoming the norm in Central and Eastern Europe as the spread of illiberal politics undermines the foundations of and prospects for democracy, according to Nations in Transit 2018, the 23rd edition of Freedom House’s annual report on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia.

Ukraine’s Democracy Score declined for the first time since the 2014 revolution. With the Russian-led conflict in the east grinding on, Ukraine’s politicians are taking advantage of patriotic sentiment to attack NGOs and journalists, accusing them of undermining the war effort.

“Attacks on civil society and political opponents have sapped the momentum from the institutional reform process in Ukraine,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit. “Although decentralization reforms are continuing, other key priorities, including anticorruption efforts, have stalled. The window of opportunity has not closed in Ukraine, but it has shrunk. By accusing NGOs and journalists of antinational sentiment, politicians are attempting to exclude legitimate voices from public debate simply because they criticize the government.”



  • Two important milestones were reached in relations between Ukraine and the European Union in 2017: the visa-free regime with the EU came into force in June, allowing millions of Ukrainians to travel freely to the neighboring Schengen zone for short-term stays, and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement — the main trigger for the Euromaidan protests which provides a framework for major transformations in Ukrainian democracy, human rights, rule of law, good governance, trade, and sustainable development — finally came completely into force.
  • One of the main achievements in Ukraine’s national governance in 2017 was healthcare reform, which, following the passage by the Verkhovna Rada of a law on healthcare financing in October, will align the system based on the principle of “money following patients.”
  • Decentralization reform continued, with administrative territorial reform resulting in the creation of approximately 700 amalgamated communities, and fiscal decentralization resulting in increased revenues and local infrastructure investments for the first time in 23 years.
  • The conflict in the east remained largely frozen throughout the year. The socioeconomic conditions in the occupied territories, and in those areas close to the line of contact, continued to be poor. The armed separatist groups developed their own institutions, which, in turn, enacted regulations that routinely violated basic human rights, while journalists and bloggers covering the conflict continued to be arrested and detained.
  • Pressure on civil society intensified. In March, the government obliged citizens working against corruption to publicly declare their income and assets, while a legislative initiative to replace the controversial requirement with other restrictive measures against NGOs under threat of onerous restrictions for not complying with the proposed regulations was unsuccessful. The Civil Society score declined due to smear campaigns against NGOs and activists.
  • Prominent civil society organizations were targeted with criminal investigations against them and their members, and there were physical attacks on well-known activists.
  • The Independent Media score declined due to the blocking of major social media sites, as well as physical attacks on journalists and a lack of progress in investigating the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet.
  • Progress on judicial and anti-corruption reforms was mixed. While the National Anticorruption Bureau actively investigated high-level corruption results of its work were few. The President had yet to create the High Anticorruption Court as promised. Vetting of judicial appointments to the Supreme Court stumbled as 25 candidates that had not passed public integrity checks were approved as official candidates.

“Illiberal politics are becoming the new normal in Europe,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Government-led smear campaigns against civil society groups, journalists, and the political opposition were pioneered in Russia and Central Asia, but they are increasingly common across the region.”


  • Poland recorded the second-largest Democracy Score decline in the history of the report. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s revolutionary takeover of the judicial system, politicization of public media, smear campaigns against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedure also produced the two largest single-category score declines in Nations in Transit’s history, for National Democratic Governance and Judicial Framework and Independence.


“The radical changes to the Polish judiciary remove any effective check on the actions of the majority party in parliament,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit. “What has happened in Poland in the last two years should serve as an alarm bell for anyone who believes that one-party rule could never return to Europe.”

“The EU should stand up for its commitments to the rule of law by implementing Article 7 sanctions against Poland and Hungary,” Schenkkan said, referring to the EU’s power to suspend a member’s voting rights. “It should condition access to European funds on clear rule-of-law criteria. This is the only way to convince these countries, and EU candidate states, that the union is firmly rooted in democratic principles.”

  • Hungary has registered the largest cumulative decline in Nations in Transit The country’s Democracy Score has been falling for 10 consecutive years, moving it from the status of a democratic leader at the time of EU accession in 2004 to the threshold of a “Transitional/Hybrid Regime” in 2018.


“The Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán led the way for illiberal forces in Central Europe, showing that it was possible to capture a state within the EU through gerrymandering, procurement manipulation, and control of the media,” said Schenkkan. “The fact that Fidesz remains a member in good standing in the European People’s Party of the European Parliament shows how effective Orbán’s approach has been.”

  • Estonia earned the biggest improvement in this edition of the report, even though it was already the best performer. A surprisingly smooth first year in government for a longtime opposition party demonstrated the resilience and independence of national institutions. Estonia’s anticorruption mechanisms appear to be addressing the municipal corruption that has long affected its major cities.

“At a time when most of the news for democracy seems bad, Estonia reminds us that liberal democracy can and does succeed,” Schenkkan said. “Even in a country with a history of foreign occupation and sensitive ethnic and regional differences, democratic national institutions can produce better governance for everyone.”

View the full report here:



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