EU "strategic partner" Russia is "crushing" democracy NGO Freedom House has warned in its 2006 survey, as Germany's Angela Merkel gears up to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sunday (21 January) to break the ice on a new "Strategic Partnership Treaty."
"Putin has systematically weakened or marginalized independent media, advocates for democracy and regime critics generally," the NGO's research director Arch Puddington writes, citing the murder of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, abuses in Chechnya and a crack-down on foreign funded NGOs.
"Russia thus serves as a model for authoritarian-minded leaders in the region" and is a "pervasive influence" Mr Puddington added, with Freedom House pointing out that Russia-oriented states Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan "are among the world's worst" in human rights terms.
The US-funded NGO - frequently attacked by the Kremlin as a "soft power" arm of the US state department that helped train the Orange Revolution movement in Ukraine - praised EU-oriented states Ukraine and Georgia as "the only bright spots in the region" despite corruption problems.
Mrs Merkel in Moscow will try to improve the climate for a future EU-Russia strategic treaty - with talks still on ice due to a trade-related Polish veto - while her diplomats seek to build closer energy ties with Central Asia. But the chancellor has proved a much tougher critic of Putin's strong-arm style than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder.
The oil-and-gas rich Kremlin is less inclined to take lessons from the west than in the early 1990s however, with state-linked Russian intellectuals popularising a concept of a special Russian "sovereign democracy" that operates outside western categories such as free elections and free press.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has begun funding its own "soft power" groups to spread pro-Russian ideas in areas such as Moldova and the South Caucasus, with CEPS analyst Nicu Popescu naming NGOs "Caucasus Institute for Democracy" and "Free Europe-Moldova Foundation" as having "obvious" Kremlin ties.
The Freedom House 2006 survey also singled out Azerbaijan as showing decline in democratic standards last year and named EU candidate Turkey as being only "partly free," while praising Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia for improvements.
Inside the EU, the budgetary lies and ensuing protests in Hungary saw a slight downturn in ratings for Budapest, but the end of Silvio Berlusconi's premiership in Italy and judicial reforms in Romania put both states on an upward trend.
The NGO also criticised the US and Europe for increasing invasions in privacy and curbs on civil liberties in the war on terror, citing US sanction of intelligence-gathering methods that "border on torture" and urging the EU not to lapse into "self-censorship" on Islamic issues in the wake of the Mohammed cartoons spat.