Freedom temples totter in Europe and beyond | Peter Preston

Many post-Soviet nations have lost their way on the road to democracy. And no one seems to care

We're so used to Silvio Berlusconi that we barely raise an eyebrow. What, a new Italian law to stop investigators bugging the PM and his mates? Because "their privacy" matters more than anything on the dark side of public life? What, new draconian provisions to stop newspapers telling a full, seamy story until it's all over in court – which it won't be because "privacy" will stop it getting anywhere near court? So Italy's journalists rise in anger and despair.

Here's the feeblest pillar of Europe's freedom temple cracking yet again. But there's a bigger problem still. Berlusconi is not alone. Indeed, when you start looking around the EU, and then beyond its borders, all you find is temples tottering. Twenty years ago, we fought to bring democratic freedoms to the nations behind the iron curtain. Ten years ago, we fought to bring the rule of law to Iraq. Ten minutes ago, we were fighting, and dying, to do the same in Afghanistan. But it's time to pause and draw breath.

In a few days, Hungary's parliament will finally get to vote on a new Media Council – lumping radio, TV and telecoms together under a boss appointed by the government and a board appointed by the selfsame parliament (where what the government says goes).

Freedom House, the US research group that measures the quality of democracy around the world, has just issued its latest report on Nations in Transit, examining 29 states allegedly finding a better way after communism. Alas, many don't seem in transit to anywhere. They're stuck or sliding back – 14 doing worse in 2009 than they were a year before – and six of those failures lie within the EU's borders. Here's Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia and (bottom of the class, because it seems a bit short of an independent judiciary) Slovakia.

At first, perhaps, it isn't Europe that catches the eye. It's the non-Baltic states that used to belong to the Soviet Union. Eight are, and seem doomed to remain, what Freedom House calls "consolidated authoritarian regimes", ie dictatorships. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, 221 million people – 80% of the old population spread – enjoy no freedoms worth the name.

And Russia itself has slipped back further over the last 10 years than any of its former satellites. More corruption year by year so that "in many ways graft is the lifeblood of the current system". Due electoral process, civil society, independent media? Wince a little and turn the page. The 90s, with their message of hope, are long gone. Nobody in the west makes speeches about the healing wonders of democracy any longer. Brits home from Kabul by 2015? Yes, if David Cameron has his way: but don't expect to find a functioning democracy left behind. That's a yesterday dream, a Bush-Blair delusion. Today's nightmare is just more Berlusconi.

Italy matters because it is big and relatively powerful. Hungary matters because it rose so memorably against its oppressors. And the other EU five matter particularly because they took and passed freedom's tests before they could join. Now we do nothing as they stall and slither. The EU strove to bind Europe together in freedom, with common aspirations and goals. Democracy wasn't an optional extra after Hitler and Mussolini, Franco and Salazar. It was what the new Europe, with its courts and assemblies, was all about. And now? Berlusconi weaves on regardless down his merry, rancid way. Bulgaria and Romania still struggle without help or encouragement. The Czechs and the Poles falter a little.

Yet nobody seems to care. It is as though we've given up on idealism, shrugged in the face of repression and crossed to the other side of the street.


Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

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