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Democracy 'deteriorates in Poland' according to Freedom House

Democracy 'deteriorates in Eastern Europe'

Democratic standards have fallen or stagnated in most of the newer members of the European Union, a U.S.-based human rights group said yesterday.

According to Freedom House's "Nations in Transit" report, political conditions worsened during 2006 in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Lithuania and were unchanged in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia.

Bulgarian and Romania, which joined the EU in January, made some improvements in their efforts to meet EU standards last year.

Political turmoil increasingly overshadowed economic progress in the four countries in the so-called Visegrad Group - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - the report said.

Multiyear trends showed democracy scores worsening in all the Visegrad countries, which joined the EU on May 1, 2004.

"Populism and anti-liberalism are on the rise, judicial independence is coming under attack or increasing pressure and media demonstrate increasing partisanship and weak levels of professionalism," the report said. "In the fight against corruption, there is a notable gap between legislation and practice."

Freedom House - an organization partly funded by the U.S government - determines each country's "Democracy Score" based on ratings from 1 (best) to 7 (worst) in seven categories - the electoral process, civil society, independent media, national and local governance, the justice system and corruption.

Of the countries in question, Freedom House found that democratic conditions declined most in Poland during 2006, as the government led by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, increasingly sought to concentrate power. The country's democracy score worsened by 0.22 points, from 2.14 to 2.36.

"The new government let it be known that it cares more about centralization and strengthening the state than self-government and civil society," the report said.

Freedom House also said the Polish government was "openly hostile to the ideal of civil society," saying its actions were felt particularly by gay rights organizations. At the same time, the group praised Poland's efforts to fight corruption.

"In 2006, measured perceptions of corruption in Poland showed improvement for the first time since 2000," the report said, thanks in part to the new Central Anti-Corruption Agency, devoted solely to eradicating corruption "from the top down."