Latest News, MEIG Highlights 8 mai 2024

Highlight 17/2024 – Democracy, Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Eastern Europe after 1989

Daniela Matei, 8 May 2024

FILE – In this Sunday, Nov. 12, 1989, file photo, an unidentified West Berliner swings a sledgehammer, trying to destroy the Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a new passage was opened nearby. JOHN GAPS III, AP, source:

The period following the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, initiated a profound transformation in Eastern Europe, as the region emerged from communist dictatorships after several decades. This transformation brought about significant changes in the field of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

One of the most notable changes in Eastern Europe after 1989 was the establishment of democratic political systems. The transition to democracy brought about the creation of multi-party systems, free and fair elections, and the establishment of independent judiciaries.

The post-communist era also saw a significant improvement in the protection of human rights in Eastern Europe. The transition to democracy reached the adoption of new constitutions and laws that enshrined the protection of human rights. The right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly were particularly important in the post-communist era. The transition to democracy provided the expansion of these freedoms, and individuals were now able to express their views freely, form political parties and organizations, and participate in public demonstrations.

Despite the significant progress made in democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, Eastern European countries continued to face challenges in this area. The corruption remained a problem in many countries, and there were still instances of human rights abuses, particularly against marginalized groups. Additionally, some countries struggled to establish strong and independent judiciaries that could effectively uphold the rule of law.

The evolution of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms across the region, has been made with transformations in several stages such as: democratic transitions; Constitutional reforms; rule of law and judicial independence; media freedom and pluralism; transnational justice.

This complicated process involved the establishment of multiparty systems, free and fair elections, and the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Several countries in Eastern Europe adopted new constitutions or amended existing ones to enshrine democratic principles and protect human rights. These constitutions often include provisions guaranteeing fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech, assembly, and association.

Efforts were made to strengthen the rule of law and ensure the independence of the judiciary. These involved reforms aimed at enhancing judicial impartiality, professionalism, and accountability, thereby safeguarding individuals’ rights and freedoms. Some countries from Eastern Europe witnessed a diversification of media outlets and the liberalization of media regulations. This led to greater media freedom and pluralism, enabling the free flow of information and diverse viewpoints.

Many Eastern European countries initiated transitional justice processes to address past human rights violations and atrocities committed under communist regimes. This included truth and reconciliation commissions, trials of former regime officials and initiatives to compensate victims.

The Venice Commission was created with the objective of helping the former communist countries to have a strong justice system, democratic constitutions and to engrain in society the respect for human rights. It was a very useful and strong instrument in the whole process after 1989.

A comparative analysis of the experience of four countries chosen, taking into account areas, size, population and their beginnings by the post-communist change, selecting two countries of the former USSR (Estonia and Ukraine) and two others that were outside it, although under the influence of the Soviet Union (Hungary and Romania), shows the long and difficult path to democracy and respect for human rights in some countries more than in others.

It should be noted that Hungary experienced a major breakdown in its democracy, rule of law and institutions after 2010, as can also be seen in the attached graphs, what is now known as an illiberal democracy.

The case of Ukraine stands out not only because of its long dependence on the USSR (70 years) but also because of its traumatic relationship with it, in which the Holodomor of 1932-33 is not silenced. Ukraine’s goal now is to join the European Union, although much remains to be done. At this point it is obvious that they are not only fighting for their territory but also for their freedom.

Certainly, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a turning point for Eastern Europe although challenges remained. The region has made significant progress and is expected to continue consolidating democratic political systems, with the protection of human rights and the strengthening of fundamental freedoms.

Scale: range, from low to high (0-1).
Scale: range, from low to high (0-1).

Daniela Matei, Highlight 17/2024 – Democracy, Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Eastern Europe after 1989, 8 May 2024, available at

The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the authors and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.


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