The Freedom House Survey for 2009The Erosion Accelerates
In a year of intensified repression against human-rights defenders and democratic activists by many of the world's most powerful authoritarian regimes, Freedom House found a continued erosion of freedom worldwide, with setbacks in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. For the fourth consecutive year, declines trumped gains, creating the longest continuous period of deterioration in the nearly forty-year history of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual assessment of the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world.
In a year of intensified repression against human-rights defenders and democratic activists by many of the world's most powerful authoritarian regimes, Freedom House found a continued erosion of freedom worldwide, with setbacks in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. For the fourth consecutive year, declines have trumped gains. This represents the longest continuous period of deterioration in the nearly forty-year history of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual assessment of the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world.
In 2009, declines in freedom were registered in 40 countries, representing 20 percent of the world's polities. In 22 of those countries, the problems were significant enough to merit poorer scores for political rights or civil liberties. Six countries moved in a negative direction in their overall status designation, either from Free to Partly Free or from Partly Free to Not Free. The year also featured a drop in the number of electoral democracies from 119 to 116, the lowest figure since 1995. The table on pp. 142–43 provides the 2009 freedom status (Not Free, Partly Free, or Free) and political-rights and civil-liberties ratings (with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least) of the world's independent countries, as well as trend arrows indicating positive or negative shifts that were not significant enough to cause a country's ratings to change.
The magnitude of the challenge to fundamental freedoms was underlined by a series of disturbing events at year's end, including the violent repression of protesters on the streets of Iran, lengthy prison sentences meted out to peaceful dissidents in China, attacks on leading human-rights activists in Russia, and continued terrorist and insurgent [End Page 136] violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. There were a few bright spots. Of the 194 countries assessed, 16 experienced gains in freedom. Broad improvements were recorded in the Balkans, as Montenegro moved into the Free category and Kosovo moved up to Partly Free, while improvements were seen in Croatia, Moldova, and Serbia. Other countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Malawi, and Togo also made noteworthy gains. There were advances for freedom in South Asia for the second consecutive year, and political institutions in major Asian democracies showed impressive strength in the face of global economic upheaval.
By historical standards, the overall state of freedom in the world has clearly improved over the last two decades. Many more countries were in the Free category and were designated as electoral democracies in 2009 than in 1989, and the majority of countries that made major progress twenty years ago have retained those improvements. Indeed, as the world marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic institutions of the postcommunist countries of Central Europe, the Baltic region, and the Balkans have shown encouraging resilience despite mounting stresses. The majority of new democracies in Latin America have not seen major ratings declines, and a number of young democracies in the Asia-Pacific region have maintained or improved their ratings. Over the last four years, however, the dominant pattern has been one of growing restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association in authoritarian settings, and a failure to continue democratic progress in previously improving countries due to unchecked corruption and weak rule of law.
The continued downward spiral throughout Central Asia in 2009 gave it the dubious distinction of becoming the world's least free subregion. Kyrgyzstan fell from Partly Free to Not Free, and the Kazakh government notably failed to enact the fundamental political reforms that it had promised during its campaign to secure the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010. Sub-Saharan Africa suffered the widest setbacks, with fifteen countries registering declines and only four securing gains. Nigeria and Kenya, both large and influential states that had demonstrated some democratic improvements in the recent past, saw continued backsliding. They were joined by a number of other African countries that had previously registered democratic advances, including Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Several parts of the Arab Middle East also saw deterioration, causing three countries in the region—Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen—to drop into the Not Free category.
Other notable trends in 2009 included authoritarian crackdowns on frontline human-rights defenders. In Russia, human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, journalist Anastasia Baburova, and human-rights advocate Natalya Estemirova were among the victims of unsolved political [End Page 137]
Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World is an evaluation of political rights and civil liberties in the world that Freedom House has provided on an annual basis for more than thirty years. (Established in New York in 1941, Freedom House is a nonprofit organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties around the world.) The survey assesses a country's freedom by examining its record in two areas: A country grants its citizens Political Rights when it permits them to form political parties that represent a significant range of voter choice and whose leaders can openly compete for and be elected to positions of power in government. A country upholds its citizens' Civil Liberties when it respects and protects their religious, ethnic, economic, linguistic, and other rights, including gender and family rights, personal freedoms, and freedoms of the press, belief, and association. The survey rates each country on a seven-point scale for both political rights and civil liberties (1 representing the most free and 7 the least free) and then divides the world into three broad categories: Free (countries whose ratings average 1.0 to 2.5); Partly Free (countries whose ratings average 3.0 to 5.0); and Not Free (countries whose ratings average 5.5 to 7.0). Freedom House also assigns upward or downward "trend arrows" to countries which saw general positive or negative trends during the year that were not significant enough to result in a ratings change from the previous year.
The ratings, which are the product of a process that includes a team of in-house and consultant writers along with senior scholars, are not merely assessments of the conduct of governments. Rather, they are intended to reflect the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals as the result of actions by both state and nonstate actors. Thus a country with a benign government facing violent forces (such as terrorist movements or insurgencies) hostile to an open society will be graded on the basis of the on-the-ground conditions that determine whether the population is able to exercise its freedoms. The survey enables scholars and policy makers both to assess the direction of global change annually and to examine trends in freedom over time and on a comparative basis across regions with different political and economic systems. The electoral-democracy designation reflects a judgment about the last major national election or elections.
For more information about Freedom House's programs and publications, please visit www.freedomhouse.org.
Note: The findings in this essay and the accompanying Table reflect global events from 1 January 2009 through 31 December 2009.
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murders. In China, Liu Xiaobo, an organizer of the Charter 08 democracy movement, received an eleven-year prison sentence. He was one of dozens of civic activists sentenced to long prison terms during the year. In Vietnam, a group of dissidents was given prison sentences for advocating multiparty politics. And in Iran, hundreds of regime critics were detained, tortured, or killed in the aftermath of the June presidential election.
Journalists and new media also encountered threats and attacks. The November 23 massacre of 29 journalists in the Philippines stood out among killings in such disparate locations as Mexico, Pakistan, Russia and Somalia. Meanwhile, authoritarian governments expanded their efforts to stifle free expression by systematically blocking the use of new media for any activity that they saw as a threat to their power. China remained at the cutting edge of this campaign, developing and deploying new forms of Internet control and cracking down on bloggers and Internet journalists who crossed political redlines. Bloggers in other authoritarian countries—including Iran and Azerbaijan—also faced increased threats, censorship, and prosecution for their activities.
Coups d'état have been rare in the last two decades. During 2009, however, a number of countries experienced what amounted to coups. In Guinea, a classic military takeover that began at the end of 2008 took hold during the year, while in Honduras, Niger, and Madagascar, extra-constitutional mechanisms were used to remove or to extend the rule of sitting leaders.
Finally, violent Islamic extremism continued to plague a number of countries from Africa to South Asia, notably Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Organized drug-trafficking contributed to insecurity and corruption in Afghanistan as well as in parts of Central America and Africa. At the same time, regimes continued to crack down on civic activists or ethnic minorities, as China did with its concerted repression of the Uyghur population.
An analysis of Freedom in the World subcategories within the broader political-rights and civil-liberties rubrics from 2005 through 2009 shows that the past year was not an anomaly. Throughout this period, there have been growing pressures on freedom of expression, press freedom, and civic activism on behalf of political reform, respect for human rights, and the rights of workers to organize. Overall, however, the most significant declines were in the rule-of-law arena. Judicial systems on the whole remained weak, unable to act independently or apply the law equally to all members of society. Arbitrary detentions and human-rights violations by both state and nonstate actors continued to hamper progress toward the institutionalization of democratic gains in many societies.
On a positive note, most regions have shown an improvement in the conduct of elections over the last five years. Asian countries registered [End Page 139] substantial advances on indicators tied to the conduct of elections and the ability of the political opposition to compete on a level playing field. Globally, election scores would have improved by a significant degree were it not for a broad decline in one subregion: the fifteen-country former Soviet Union. Thus, despite the vote-rigging, fraud, and other manipulations that occurred in a number of countries in 2009, the global picture over the last five years suggests that governments are more likely to permit relatively honest elections than to allow an uncensored press, a robust civil society, or an independent judiciary.
The number of countries assessed as Free in 2009 stood at 89, representing 46 percent of the world's 194 countries and 3.089 billion people—46 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries remained unchanged from the previous year's survey. The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 58, or 30 percent of all countries, comprising 1.4 billion people, or 20 percent of the world's total. The number of Partly Free countries declined by four from the previous year. (Among the Partly Free countries for 2009 was Kosovo, which in previous editions of Freedom in the World had been listed as a disputed territory.) Forty-seven countries were deemed Not Free, representing 24 percent of the total. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 2.3 billion, or 34 percent of the world's population, although it is important to note that more than half these people live in a single country: China. The number of Not Free countries increased by five from 2008.
Two countries, both in the Balkans, registered positive changes in status during the year. Montenegro moved from Partly Free to Free, and Kosovo rose from Not Free to Partly Free. Six countries experienced declines in status: Lesotho moved from Free to Partly Free, while Bahrain, Gabon, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, and Yemen fell from Partly Free to Not Free.
The number of electoral democracies dropped by three and now stands at 116. Setbacks in four countries—Honduras, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Niger—led to their removal from the electoral-democracy list. One country, the Maldives, joined the ranks of the world's electoral democracies.
Latin America: Declines in freedom in Honduras and Nicaragua were signal developments in a year of general deterioration in Central America. The elite classes' fear of a power grab by Honduran president Manuel Zelaya provoked a coup that resulted in his forced exile in June. This clear democratic rupture was complicated by an institutional clash: Zelaya's ouster was supported by the country's legislature and Supreme Court, and it came after Zelaya himself had acted in ways that many [End Page 140] felt violated the checks and balances of the Honduran constitution. But while Zelaya's actions provided his opponents with much fodder, his forced exile and the restrictions imposed on civil liberties by his successors resulted in declines for the country's political-rights and civil-liberties ratings.
In Nicaragua, civil liberties declined due to President Daniel Ortega's continued use of violent intimidation and politicized courts to overcome obstacles to his plans for reelection. Guatemala's political-rights rating fell as a result of the government's inability to come to grips with rampant organized crime and related violence. Indeed, the violence perpetrated by nonstate actors, including drug-traffickers, has over the years led to declines in civil liberties in a number of countries in Central America, as well as in Mexico and Colombia.
Political rights in Venezuela have deteriorated due to the ongoing concentration of power in the hands of President Hugo Chávez and his further marginalization of the political opposition. These developments also have influenced politics in the rest of the region. Chávez's populist message resonates in some places, and left-of-center candidates have scored electoral victories in a number of countries, most notably in the Andean and Central American subregions. Unfortunately, fears of growing Venezuelan influence also helped to motivate the coup in Honduras. Nevertheless, many countries in Latin America have both rejected the populist-authoritarian model of Venezuela and strengthened their own democratic institutions. This has been the case in Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.
Cuba remained the only Not Free country in the Western Hemisphere in 2009. The Cuban government took no significant measures during the year to open up its political system or allow citizens to exercise their freedoms of expression and association. At year's end, Cuban authorities arrested a U.S. citizen who was in the country to distribute telecommunications equipment to political dissidents. Cuba remains one of the handful of countries worldwide that treats the distribution of laptops and mobile telephones to civil society groups as a crime.
Middle East and North Africa: News from the region was dominated by the upheaval in Iran, where election rigging, deadly state violence against civilians, and repression of the political opposition were met by a protest movement that impressed the world with its size, courage, commitment to democratic values, and staying power. Overall, the Middle East and North Africa region suffered a number of significant setbacks, often centered in countries that had produced some evidence of reformist intentions in the recent past. Declines in 2009 brought the portion of the region's residents who live in Not Free societies to 88 percent.
Three countries—Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen—dropped from the Partly Free to the Not Free category. In Bahrain, political rights suffered as a [End Page 141] [Begin Page 142]
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result of the harassment of opposition political figures and the discrimination by the minority Sunni elite against the Shi'ite majority. Jordan suffered a decline in political rights due to the king's decision to dissolve parliament and postpone elections. Yemen's political-rights rating declined due to rapidly deteriorating security conditions and the increased marginalization of the parliament and other political institutions. Although Morocco's status did not decline in 2009, the increased concentration of power in the hands of forces aligned with King Mohammed VI, along with stepped-up harassment of opposition critics, increased concerns about the erosion of political rights in that country.
Improvements were noted in two countries that have experienced conflict in recent years: Iraq and Lebanon. Iraq's political-rights rating improved in light of provincial elections that were generally regarded as fair and competitive, and due to the government's enhanced autonomy as the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops got under way. Lebanon benefited from a decline in political violence, which resulted in an improvement in its civil-liberties rating.
Nevertheless, violence remains a dominant theme in the politics of the region and a significant impediment to the exercise of fundamental freedoms in many countries, including Iraq. The beginning of 2009 was marred by fierce fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While Israel remains the only country in the region to hold a designation of Free, freedoms of assembly and association came under pressure there during the year. Hundreds of people were arrested during demonstrations against the Gaza conflict, and the elections committee of the Knesset passed a measure banning two political parties from national elections, though the ban was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court.
Sub-Saharan Africa: While the advances made in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades have not eroded overall, the region suffered significant setbacks in 2009, with fifteen countries registering declines and only four countries marking gains. Botswana and Lesotho both experienced reversals, with Lesotho moving from Free to Partly Free status. A decline in Botswana's political-rights rating was attributed to growing secrecy in the government. In Lesotho, political rights deteriorated as a result of the government's failure to negotiate in good faith with the opposition over flaws in the election system that emerged during balloting in 2008. Three countries experienced coups: Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger. In the case of Guinea, the military takeover was followed by a terrifying rampage in which soldiers massacred and raped peaceful protesters. Among the region's most repressive and least free states, further declines were recorded in Congo (Kinshasa), Eritrea, and Gabon.
Perhaps the most disturbing trend in the region is the decline over several years of some large and influential countries that had previously made important democratic progress. Kenya continued to see declines in freedom [End Page 144] stemming from charges of vote-rigging during the 2007 elections, the violence that came in the elections' wake, and a failure to hold those responsible to account. Another regional powerhouse, Nigeria, continued on its downward path of recent years, which has featured flawed elections, pervasive corruption, and troubling levels of sectarian and religious violence. These problems have eroded some of the gains that the country made following its transition from military rule in 1999. Ethiopia's trajectory has also been negative for a number of years, as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has persecuted the opposition, tilted the political playing field, and suppressed civil society.
Improvements were noted in four countries: Burundi, Malawi, Togo, and Zimbabwe. While harsh conditions in Zimbabwe eased somewhat after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was brought into a unity government as prime minister and a parliament led by his party was sworn in, the country remained among the continent's most repressive. The authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, remained in office, and his allies in the security forces continued to harass, arrest, and torture opposition figures.
Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The year 2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was also a year when many of the countries that had won their freedom from Soviet domination found themselves under increased pressure from the global economic downturn. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Latvia were among those most severely affected by the crisis, but the entire region suffered to some degree, with skyrocketing rates of unemployment, increased poverty, financial instability, and waning confidence in free-market capitalism. Despite these pressures, the institutions of freedom remained remarkably resilient throughout Central Europe, the Baltic, and the Balkans.
Five countries in the western Balkans experienced gains in freedom during the year. The most notable improvements occurred in Kosovo, which advanced from Not Free to Partly Free status after strengthening the protection of minority rights and holding elections that were deemed to be in compliance with international standards. The other countries registering gains were Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, with the last improving from Partly Free to Free.
Meanwhile, the countries of the non-Baltic former Soviet Union continued their decade-long backsliding during 2009. Conditions in this subregion have deteriorated to the point where almost every country ranks at the very bottom on multiple indicators measured by Freedom in the World. The area's average political-rights score—which covers the spheres of electoral processes, political pluralism, and functioning of government—has dropped sharply over the past four years and is now comparable to that of the Middle East and North Africa. The non-Baltic [End Page 145] former Soviet Union lags far behind sub-Saharan Africa on the average scores for political rights and civil liberties, as well as on the majority of individual indicators, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the rule of law.
The dominant regional power, Russia, suffered further deterioration despite assurances from President Dmitri Medvedev that reform is in the offing. While Medvedev announced policies to fight corruption, loosen controls on civil society organizations, strengthen the rule of law, and enhance freedom of expression, the country met with a range of setbacks for political rights and civil liberties. Credible reports suggest that local and regional elections were suffused with irregularities. New restrictions were placed on religious minorities. A new commission was established to influence the presentation of history in schools and elsewhere, a move consistent with the Kremlin's wider efforts to manage and manipulate information in the public sphere. Human-rights defenders and journalists remained vulnerable to persecution and murder, and there was a distinct lack of progress in punishing those responsible for politically motivated killings.
Central Asia remained one of the most repressive areas in the world. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have long ranked at or near the bottom of the Freedom in the World scale. 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 during the post-Soviet period. Kazakhstan, Central Asia's wealthiest state, also registered a decline. It has made no progress toward implementation of reforms it had promised in advance of its assumption of the chairmanship of the OSCE. During 2009, the Kazakh authorities took a further step backward when they arrested and sentenced Yevgenii Zhovtis, a prominent human-rights advocate.
The regimes in other authoritarian states on Russia's periphery, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus, have shown no signs of abandoning their repressive policies. Ukraine, which has also suffered heavily from the economic downturn and is burdened by enormous corruption problems, remains the only Free state in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union.
Asia-Pacific: As the world's most populous region, Asia is home to some of the globe's largest democracies as well as its biggest authoritarian regime, presenting a unique dynamic for democratic development. While most world regions experienced various degrees of decline in freedom in 2009, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole experienced modest gains. Three of its most strategically significant countries—India, Indonesia, and Japan—held competitive and fair general elections, with the historic victory of Japan's opposition Democratic Party reconfirming that Japanese citizens can change their government when they choose to [End Page 146] do so. Other gains for political rights were seen in Bangladesh, where an elected civilian government replaced a military-backed administration, and in the Maldives, where the first democratic parliamentary elections passed peacefully. Polls in Mongolia and in both Indian and Pakistani Kashmir similarly contributed to improvements in political rights.
Not all election-related developments were positive, however. In Afghanistan, which saw a worsening of its political-rights rating, a deeply flawed presidential poll exacerbated an already unstable security situation and exposed the prevalence of corruption within the government. In the Philippines, the massacre of civilians in connection with a local official's attempt to register his candidacy and the government's subsequent declaration of martial law in the area were indicative of heightened political violence in the run-up to the 2010 elections.
In addition, civil liberties, in particular the rule of law and respect for freedom of expression, saw reversals in both authoritarian and democratic societies. In Cambodia, the government recriminalized defamation and then used the new legislation to intimidate independent journalists. In Vietnam, a prominent independent think tank was shut down and prodemocracy civic activists were imprisoned. In Indonesia, top law-enforcement officials were implicated in efforts to undermine anti-corruption bodies. In Taiwan, increased government efforts to enforce anticorruption laws were marred by flaws in the protection of criminal defendants' rights, and new legislation restricted the political expression of academics. Finally, in China, Communist Party leaders sought to tighten control over judges, while embarking on a sweeping crackdown against leading human-rights lawyers and nonprofit organizations offering legal services.
Indeed, as China's leaders showed greater confidence on the world stage, their actions at home demonstrated continued insecurity and intolerance with respect to citizens' demands for legal rights and accountable governance. The authorities' paranoid handling of a series of politically sensitive anniversaries—such as the sixty-year mark of Communist Party rule—included lockdowns on major cities, new restrictions on the Internet, the creation of special extralegal taskforces, and harsh punishments meted out to democracy activists, petitioners, Tibetans, Falun Gong adherents, and human-rights defenders. In addition, longstanding government policies aimed at altering the demography of the Xinjiang region and repressing religious freedom there came to a head in 2009, when an eruption of ethnic violence was followed by forced "disappearances" of Uyghur Muslims, a series of executions, and tightened Internet censorship. Nevertheless, many of China's bloggers, journalists, legal professionals, workers, and religious believers, often at great personal risk, pushed the limits of permissible activity in increasingly sophisticated ways. They managed to expose cases of official corruption, circulate underground publications, and play a role in forcing [End Page 147] the government's partial retraction of a policy to install monitoring and censorship software on personal computers. Growing labor unrest and better-organized strikes reflected workers' ability to bypass the Party-controlled union, sometimes resulting in concessions by employers.
South Asia saw several improvements in 2009. Bangladesh's new civilian-led government enacted important legislation to improve transparency. The issue of detainee deaths remained a serious concern, but lower levels of politically motivated violence and detentions, as well as fewer restrictions on the media, led to better scores for the country in a number of categories. Scores for the Maldives also improved, due to generally free legislative elections and a series of reforms in the areas of accountability, anticorruption, free assembly and association, and prison conditions.
While Pakistan remained mired in official corruption and extremist violence, positive signs were noted in initial reforms of the administration of the tribal areas and especially in the peaceful resolution of the judicial crisis, which included the reinstatement of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the restoration of a large measure of judicial independence. In Sri Lanka, improvements in political freedom following the end of the long-running civil war were balanced by the government's unwillingness to meaningfully address ethnic grievances, the internment of several hundred thousand displaced civilians in squalid conditions for much of the year, and increased hostility toward journalists and nongovernmental organizations.
Meeting the Authoritarian Challenge
Despite the record of global setbacks during the past year, the overall state of freedom in the world remains quite positive by any historical measurement. With some exceptions, the societies that embraced democracy during the Cold War's waning years and immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union have retained their array of free institutions. The apparent durability of democracy in a number of Asia's most important countries represents a bright spot, as do the gains for freedom in the Balkans, a region that was mired in civil war and ethnic hatred during the 1990s. The fact that more societies did not seek authoritarian alternatives in the face of a severe worldwide economic crisis last year also could be held up as a testament to the strength of the democratic idea.
Still, the notion that things could have been worse is poor consolation for a year in which freedom showed some measure of decline in roughly forty countries. The results for 2009 were no isolated occurrence: They marked the fourth consecutive year of overall decline, the longest such stretch of negative data in the history of Freedom in the World. This phenomenon should galvanize civic leaders and governments throughout [End Page 148] the democratic world, as well as those men and women elsewhere who aspire to live in free societies. Yet it comes at a time when public opinion in the United States, at least, is experiencing a resurgence of isolationism in key respects.
According to "America's Place in the World 2009," a survey published by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for the first time since World War II a plurality of Americans (49 percent) believe that the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can." With regard to "promoting democracy around the world," public support declined from 29 percent just after the 2001 terrorist attacks to 21 percent today, and an even steeper decline was recorded in the views of Council on Foreign Relations members, from 44 percent in early September 2001 to a mere 10 percent today. As was the case when Freedom House was founded in 1941, the reluctance of U.S. public opinion today to support active engagement in a messy world, despite clear infringements on democratic liberties overseas, makes it extremely difficult for U.S. foreign policy to defend democracy from its enemies.
Another source of concern is the growing paranoia of the largest and most headstrong of the world's authoritarian powers. No country can compete in this respect with China, which—despite its waxing economic and military prowess—behaves as if it were under siege by its own citizens. The prison sentence recently issued to democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo is reminiscent of the antidissident campaigns of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev. Similarly disturbing is Beijing's persecution of lawyers who have represented defendants—including ethnic and religious minorities and independent journalists—in politically sensitive cases. While China asserts that its relations with the rest of the world are based on a fundamental principle of noninterference, it recently tried to intimidate foreign cultural officials into silencing regime critics at conferences and exhibition venues in Australia, Bangladesh, Germany, and South Korea. It also has badgered foreign countries to return Uyghurs seeking asylum abroad, and succeeded in persuading Pakistan and Cambodia to do so despite a credible risk of torture and execution.
While these acts of repression are disturbing, so is the absence of protest from the democratic world. When the Soviet Union arrested a dissident or suppressed religious expression, it drew widespread condemnation by figures ranging from heads of state to trade-union leaders, as well as by human-rights organizations and prominent humanitarians. China's current actions, by contrast, rarely elicit more than boilerplate criticism; often they provoke no response whatsoever. Nor is China the only authoritarian power that has managed to avoid global attention to its breaches of democratic standards. Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship of the OSCE for 2010 despite a record of fraudulent elections and repression of independent critics in the media and civil society—behavior [End Page 149] that only grew worse as 2010 approached. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has beguiled many and escaped censure by the Organization of American States despite his increasingly contemptuous attitude toward pluralism and his own country's constitution. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other influential authoritarian states in the Middle East similarly escape criticism for their assaults on citizens who seek to improve the climate for rights and freedoms in their countries.
The Cold War has ended, but the tendency of authoritarians of various stripes to band together and pursue common strategic, diplomatic, and economic interests remains a reality of international politics. Authoritarians prefer alliances with other authoritarians and continue to regard the United States and the world's other democracies as adversaries. They are deeply unsettled by citizen-driven movements for change, such as the one witnessed in the U.S. electoral campaign of 2008, or those that—in very different contexts—currently threaten the forces of repression in Iran and Zimbabwe. Authoritarian rulers fear their own citizens: hence their frequently expressed apprehensions about a U.S.-inspired "velvet revolution." In response, they increasingly devote strategic thought and material resources to the challenge of keeping their people under control and the democratic world at bay.
While a "freedom recession" and an authoritarian resurgence have clearly emerged as global trends, they are subject to reversal. Democracy remains the preferred form of government; indeed, no other system or model has gained widespread support. The United States and other democracies should take the initiative to meet the authoritarian challenge, and democratic leaders should make the case to their wary publics that it is important to do so now, while the balance remains relatively favorable, rather than to wait for further erosion in the global state of freedom. [End Page 150]
Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House. For more information on the survey, see the box on p. 138; for the rankings of individual countries for 2009, see the table on pp. 142–43. This article was completed with the assistance of Eliza Young.