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Freedom Group Notes Decline of Democracy in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan

A non-profit organization that monitors global freedom says surging oil and gas wealth is speeding up a decline of democracy in such former Soviet republics as Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

In a new report "Nations in Transit 2008," the U.S.-based group, Freedom House, says oil profits are enabling the authoritarian governments of those countries to increasingly "clamp down" on critics, independent voices and institutions.

The group cites what it calls a "sharp and systematic erosion of accountability and transparency" in the three energy-rich countries. Freedom House says this decline affects a range of sectors, from the news media to the legal system to the electoral process.

Freedom House says Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have moved backward on every single democracy indicator since 1999, except for Russia's slightly improved corruption score.

The study's release comes ahead of a European Union-Russia summit later this week in Western Siberia.

The study also examined democratic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The report says several repressive government actions harmed Georgia's reform hopes last year. These included a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and the closure of an opposition television station.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.