To coincide with today's release of the Freedom House Nations in Transit 2008 report, three of the study's authors gathered at RFE/RL's Washington, DC headquarters to discuss one of its key findings - that, as oil and natural gas revenues surge in Russia and Central Asia, democratic institutions in these countries are eroding significantly.
[Read more about the Nations in Transit 2008 Report
"The resource curse is taking root," Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker told the group. "The growing authoritarianism in oil and natural gas-rich countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan is severely restricting the ability of democratic institutions to operate."
According to the report, the regression in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia has occurred systematically and across sectors, including in the areas of electoral process, civil society, independent media and judicial independence.
"Russia's decline in all of the report's categories over the past eight years is dramatic," said Robert Orttung, the author of the section on Russia and a Senior Fellow at the Jefferson Institute. "For years, Vladimir Putin has been using oil and natural gas revenues to build up his police forces and consolidate power in such a way that there is no space for democracy to grow."
"Ironically, as an oil superpower, Russia could be even more dangerous without oil," said Orttung. "If the regime didn't have the financial resources to keep people happy, it would likely need to rely more on the security forces and other aggressive methods to stifle dissent. Because of the fragility of the Russian economy - which is entirely dependent on oil and natural gas demand - the West can help by encouraging Russia to diversify its economy away from energy."
Bruce Pannier, a Prague-based correspondent for RFE/RL specializing in Central Asia, cited the 2005 massacre in Andijon, Uzbekistan as an example of how foreign policy is being affected. "After Uzbek police killed 700 protestors in Andijon, Russia and China, who have tight energy relationships with Uzbekistan, came to its defense and helped mute criticism from the West."
First published in 1995, Freedom House's Nations in Transit report is the only comprehensive, comparative, and multidimensional study of reform in all of the former Communist states of Europe and Eurasia.
The full report is available online at freedomhouse.org