01/20/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

The Arab Spring a Year Later -- a Democratic Scorecard

Each year, Freedom House issues its Freedom in the World report, a comprehensive global tally of the gains and losses for freedom over the previous year.

This year, Arch Puddington, the group's director of research, also picked the "top 10 trends in global freedom." Unsurprisingly in this year of upheaval in the Arab world, five were related to developments in the Middle East.

On the positive side, Tunisia has emerged as "the Arab world's first genuine democracy -- the only true success story of the Arab spring so far," according to Puddington.

Also cited positively was the removal of three 'dictators" -- Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh could soon follow them.

On the negative side of the ledger, says Puddington, elites in the region "tightened the screws through killings, arrests, torture, censorship, and other tactics from the tried-and-true dictators' playbook. Major repression was seen in Yemen and Bahrain, as well as more modest crackdowns in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon."

We have also seen intensified sectarian violence in Iraq, Bahrain and Syria. Sectarian strains also threaten stability in Lebanon and anti-Christian violence has surged in Egypt.

Freedom House also has some words of warning regarding Turkey where "a wave of arrests has targeted Kurdish rights advocates, journalists, academics, members of the political opposition, and leading members of the military."

This balanced assessment comes as a needed corrective to the naïve expectations spread by some a year ago that the Arab Spring presaged a wholesale shift to democracy -- similar to that which took place after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

Those making these hopeful assessments paid no attention to the unwelcome fact that the majority of people who threw off the Soviet yoke today unfortunately still find themselves living under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. Those countries which successful made the transition to democracy did so because they were able to link themselves politically to NATO and/or the European Union and because of the influx of trillions of dollars of western economic aid.

The most successful transitions happened in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic where a well-organized democratic opposition was poised to take over.

And even now, Freedom House's Puddington warns of backsliding in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, taking advantage of a parliamentary supermajority, has pushed through a new constitution and a raft of laws that could "seriously weaken press freedom, judicial independence, and a fair election process."

But the collapse of communism led to years of bloody ethnic wars in former Yugoslavia. Democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have proved disappointing. Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to be plagued by divisive conflicts.

Russia, which flirted with democracy, quickly reverted to authoritarianism. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, eight are brutal autocratic regimes. Belarus is ruled by "Europe's last dictator," Alexander Lukashenko, who has run his country with an iron fist since 1994.

Democracy is much more than just holding free and fair elections. It has to be underpinned by a civil society governed by the rule of law and supported by a politically neutral civil justice system free of corruption. Also required are a free press; respect for minorities; public accountability; business transparency; and the presence of educational, cultural, scientific and religious institutions and NGOs.

What do these lessons teach us about the probable course of the "Arab Spring?"

Countries like Egypt and Syria have little or no democratic traditions and cannot expect the massive influx of aid and expertise that Eastern Europe received after 1989. They cannot be anchored to the democratic West through NATO or the EU. They are riddled with corruption and face intractable economic challenges. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is another factor militating against the establishment of democracy.

We are not likely to see them cited as success stories in Freedom House reports of the next few years.