Democracy 'in decline' in new EU states


Respect for democracy has declined in most of the eight eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004, particularly Poland, a study by a US neo-conservative think tank has found.

Freedom House said the handling of painful economic reforms have led to the erosion of democracy in some countries, including Hungary, while in Poland reforms have stalled altogether under the current conservative government.

However, the eight central European countries, among 10 states to join the EU at the same time, still lead the transition to democracy compared to the other 21 states from central Europe and central Asia analysed by the study.

Professor Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University presented the study to a news conference saying there were worrying sign in the EU states; "in particular, there is backsliding in Poland".

The report said the eurosceptic Law and Justice party had put pressure on Polish media and civil society, particularly on gay rights organisations, and concentrated power without sufficient checks and balances.

"In 2006, [the government] forced a change in leadership of the public television and radio apparently based on political criteria, and engaged in a purge of journalists whose careers began during the Communist era," Freedom House said.

In Hungary, the report said democracy was weakened by government lies about the economy in the April 2006 election campaign and there had been a growth in populism as a result of changes to state institutions.

"Political culture did not keep up with institutional changes," Prof Gati said.

There were months of protests in Budapest, some violent, last year after Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted he had lied about the country's huge budget deficit and then raised taxes and prices.

More recent measures to reform the costly state health and education systems have raised tension further, Mr Gati said.

The study cited improvement in Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the European Union at the start of the year.

But it highlighted anti-democratic trends in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has been accused by opponents of seeking to roll back democracy.

"The authoritarian countries that dominate the region have intensified repressive practices," said the group co-founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt to work for the expansion of freedom in the world, with headquarters in Washington and now a European base in Budapest.

"Russia has undergone precipitous decline over the course of this decade and this year's democracy score was no exception to this trend." Russia's ratings for electoral processes, independent media and civil society all deteriorated in 2006.