For those of us old enough to have grown up during the Cold War, 1989 stood out as the era’s transformational miracle year. Hungary recognized the 1956 revolutionaries and opened its border with Austria. The Polish communists held a free election, scoring 0 out of 100 seats contested. The Czech politburo resigned, leaving dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to ascend to the presidency. The Berlin Wall fell. And Romania’s odious power couple, Nicolae and Elena Ceauseșcu, were executed by a drumhead court martial on Christmas Day.
Soon even the Soviet Union was gone, tossed into history’s dustbin. It was another Christmas, this one in 1991, when the Soviet flag over the Kremlin was lowered for the last time. What Ronald Reagan had famously—and accurately—labeled the Evil Empire was gone. Many terrible memories remained, but tyrannical rule over hundreds of millions of people had been swept away almost entirely peacefully.
The future looked bright. Yet by the mid-2000s, political liberty began a long reverse. The latest Freedom House survey is out and records the 17th straight decline in freedom around the world. The organization explains:
Moscow’s war of aggression led to devastating human rights atrocities in Ukraine. New coups and other attempts to undermine representative government destabilized Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Peru, and Brazil. Previous years’ coups and ongoing repression continued to diminish basic liberties in Guinea and constrain those in Turkey, Myanmar, and Thailand, among others. Two countries suffered downgrades in their overall freedom status: Peru moved from Free to Partly Free, and Burkina Faso moved from Partly Free to Not Free.
From the American standpoint, the greatest disappointment may be the number of U.S. “allies and partners,” as the phrase goes, that are long-time dictatorships or declining democracies. The previously mentioned Thailand and Turkey are nowhere near the worst. Saudi Arabia remains a bottom dweller, rated lower than Russia, Iran, and even China. The Mideast is filled with other brutal “friends,” including Egypt, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates. The problem is not so much hypocrisy, which is a diplomatic constant, but sanctimony, as U.S. officials engage in moral preening around the globe.
Amid an otherwise disheartening deterioration, Freedom House notes some good news. The rate of decline has slowed, as the gap between gains and losses was the smallest in 17 years: “Thirty-four countries made improvements, and the tally of countries with declines, at 35, was the smallest recorded since the negative pattern began.” (Last year, the numbers were a shocking 25 and 60, respectively.)
Of course, there is still plenty of bad news and the gap could grow again in the future. Over the past two decades, however, the most vulnerable countries may have suffered their worst. Seeming political stabilization, even at a lower level, may increase chances of a democratic revival.
Also important was the continuing resistance to oppression, often at great personal cost and risk. Freedom House contends that “ongoing protests against repression in Iran, Cuba, China, and other authoritarian countries suggest that people’s desire for freedom is enduring, and that no setback should be regarded as permanent.” In these and other nations, brutal regimes were shaken by strong, even heroic resistance.
Finally, the organization concludes that “the most significant positive developments were driven by competitive elections in Latin America and Africa, with politicians and ordinary people in the affected countries reaffirming their commitment to the democratic process.” Usually younger generations led the fight for change and against authoritarian rule, unwilling to accept what always has been as what always must be.
The worst setbacks last year reflected wars, most dramatically Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with all of the resulting horrors. Indeed, Russia’s abuses were significant even before invading Ukraine last February. Freedom House points out that “Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Donbas has entailed a long-standing campaign of forced ethnic change in those Ukrainian territories. Since 2014, many Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians have left the regions, driven not only by political persecution and the violence of war but also by overt policies of Russification.” The Putin government has extended many of these policies to new lands occupied over the past 14-plus months.
Another terrible tragedy was Ethiopia: “The ongoing civil conflict centered on the northern Tigray region has resulted in, among other abuses, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes on the basis of their ethnicity.”
Alas, nominal peace can be as bad as war for residents, especially when ideologues untethered to reality take control. For instance, Afghanistan’s situation has continued to deteriorate: “Since overthrowing Afghanistan’s elected government in 2021, the Taliban have presided over a catastrophic economic collapse, a surge in hunger and poverty, and mass emigration. Rather than taking steps that would reduce its international isolation, however, the regime has moved in the opposite direction.”
Another source of tyranny is coups, overt in Burkina Faso and self-directed in Peru last year. Earlier military takeovers, most notably in Burma/Myanmar, Guinea, and Thailand, continued to undermine democratic freedoms. In Burma the military completely dismantled the limited democratic institutions it had established a decade before. And President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan still used Turkey’s attempted coup of 2016 as a justification for his slow march to dictatorship.
Elected officials also often undermined the very democratic processes that brought them to power. Ostentatiously abusing their power to fulfill grand, autocratic visions at their people’s expense were leaders of Brazil, El Salvador, Hungary, and Tunisia. Some, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, largely backed down from their abusive rhetoric. In contrast, in Tunisia, President Kais Saied appears headed toward a full scale dictatorship, with widespread arrests of political critics and opponents.
One unsettling change, notes Freedom House, is that “it has become more difficult to consolidate nascent democratic institutions in recent decades. More and more countries have remained Partly Free instead of moving toward full democratization.” Too many have become stuck, lacking critical values, practices, and institutions.
The transition away from autocracy is a key moment. Countries such as South Korea and Taiwan evolved from dictatorships into vibrant, sometimes tempestuous democracies. Advocates of liberal societies need to identify how to help newly democratic systems deepen their popular legitimacy and institutional foundations.
Freedom House hopes that 2023 will turn out to be a turning point toward greater liberty and democracy. However, the battle for a better, freer future may be one of years and decades. As Freedom House itself acknowledges: “In 1973, when Freedom House published its first comprehensive assessment of political rights and civil liberties, only 44 of 148 countries were classified as Free. Today, 84 of 195 countries are Free. The varied paths that these countries followed show there is no single method for improving or protecting political rights and civil liberties.”
In the mid-1980s there were almost equal numbers of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free nations. The events surrounding 1989 freed hundreds of millions of people in one go. Today we face the tougher task of advancing liberty one people and country at a time, starting with our own. And having achieved a freer society, we must never take its fruits for granted.