Democracy scores declined in 2016 in more than half of the 29 countries surveyed in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Eurasia, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-democracy watchdog organization.
This is the second-biggest decline in the annual report's 22-year history and is attributed to the rise of populism in the "Nations in Transit" region, where "leaders are openly attacking liberal democracies."
Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has the lowest ranking in Central Europe, according to the Freedom House report.
Orban "has created a kind of model for member states, even for the European Union, to reject democracy," Nate Schenkkan, project director at Freedom House, told VOA. "He talks about it openly. It's part of his vocabulary to say that he doesn't accept the idea of democracy the EU has enshrined in its treaty, that the U.S. has historically tried to advance. He believes these things are false and hostile to the Hungarian nation."
The report also criticized Poland under the ruling Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The report cited attacks by populist leaders in both countries on constitutional courts and the system of checks and balances, as well as the transformation of public media into "propaganda arms."
In response to the report, Hungary's government press office said Tuesday, "Freedom of the press fully prevails in Hungary. Every political opinion can find room and be published in the Hungarian press. Hungarian citizens can exercise their democratic rights in free elections."
According to Freedom House report: "The spectacular breakdown of democracy in these countries should serve as a warning about the fragility of the institutions that are necessary for liberal democracy, especially in settings where political norms have shallow roots and where populists are able to tap into broad social disaffection."
Sergey Aleksashenko, the former deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research and policy group in Washington, told VOA, "It is a normal and usual situation in many countries, moreover because during transition and crises, people like to have simple answers on very complicated questions."
"Populism can maybe be successful," he added, "but it can never lead to a result that democracy can. As people live 5, 10, 15, 20 years in a populist regime, sooner or later they'll find their lives [are] much worse than their neighbors."
The best example, he says, is Venezuela: "It was one of the richest countries in South America relying on oil, but 15 years of populist policy and declining oil prices, in fact, collapsed the country."
Russia was ranked near the bottom of the survey, even though the report acknowledges a highly developed civil society continues to exist, along with some independent media.
"We may say there's some freedom of internet, but ... 80 percent of the Russian population receives news from TV and there's no television station that's not controlled by the government," Aleksashenko said. "You might argue there's some freedom, of course there is ... but it's not freedom of information. And in my personal view, it's a serious misjudgment of what's going on in Russia."
In the Balkans, the democracy scores improved for two countries — Montenegro and Croatia — and declined for four countries. According to the survey, Macedonia's score is nearing the low point of 2001, when there was ethnic conflict in the country; Serbia's score reached its lowest point since 2003, despite its progress in the European Union accession negotiations.
But Aleksashenko cautioned the Balkan countries should not be compared to the Western European countries because they've had to build institutions, governmental and state cultures from scratch in the past two decades.
In Eurasia, the survey put Kyrgyzstan back into the category of Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes, a classification it had left after competitive parliamentary elections in 2011.
"Where civil society is persecuted or oppressed or unable to operate, where there's no free media, where there's no judicial independence, where there's kleptocracy or state capture, that's where we have a consolidated authoritarian regime," Freedom House’s Schenkkan said.
The report said corruption in Eurasia declined in five of the 12 countries, but reached new highs in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In Belarus, Schenkkan said, "what you had in 2016 was a continuation of the trend from 2015 where there is a very slight, but real, relaxation in the political control by the [Alexander] Lukashenko regime."
Freedom House pointed to Ukraine, Romania and Kosovo as bright spots in the survey. The Romanian government addressed outstanding issues such as problems in the voting process during the previous year. In Ukraine and Kosovo, modest gains due to gradual structural reforms were made, but they face obstacles to deeper transformation that could derail their progress.
The Freedom House "Nations in Transit" report evaluates the state of democracy in 29 formerly communist countries from Central Europe to the Balkans to Central Asia.