Former Soviet republics: Winners and losers

Twenty years ago the Soviet Union broke up and its 15 republics gained independence. After the initial shock of transforming from communist to market economies, most started to recover only to face further financial crises or armed conflict - or both. Here you can compare countries over two decades using indicators of national wealth, health and democracy starting with the wealthiest, Estonia, and poorest, Tajikistan.

Leadership

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (left)
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip

Wealth

Estonia is the wealthiest of the 15 former Soviet Republics. It has a thriving electronics and telecoms sector and strong trade relations with Finland, Sweden and Germany. Like its Baltic neighbours, in the decade after independence Estonia made a rapid transformation to embrace the free market.

It joined the European Union in May 2004, which prompted an investment boom, but in 2008 its economy was hit by the global financial crisis. It had the EU's worst year for unemployment which soared to 15.6% in May 2009 from 3.9% the previous year.

The government adopted tough austerity measures and won plaudits for getting the economy back into shape ahead of entry to the European single currency in January 2011. The prime minister had aimed for eurozone membership in January 2007 but high inflation led the government to put back the target entry date.

Compare countries

National Wealth Since 1990

GDP per capita (constant 2000 US$)

Estonia
Tajikistan
Average (of all former Republics)

NB: Inflation but not the differences in the cost of living between countries has been taken into account

Source: Gapminder/World Bank

Leadership

President Emomali Sharipovich Rakhmon

Wealth

Tajikistan is the poorest nation of all the 15 former Soviet republics. It was plunged into a five-year civil war soon after independence ending in 1997. Up to 50,000 people were killed and over one-tenth of the population fled the country.

The economy has never really recovered and poverty is widespread. Almost half of Tajikistan's GDP is earned by an estimated two million migrants working abroad, mainly in Russia but the recession in 2009 threatened that income.

The country's main exports are cotton and aluminium but it is also dependent on oil and gas imports.

Autocracy or democracy

Number of leadership* changes since 1990

Life expectancy since 1990

Average life expectancy at birth (years)

National Wealth Since 1990

GDP per capita (constant 2000 US$)

NB: *Leadership = president, except Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova where leadership indicates prime minister

Source: Reporters without borders, Press Freedom Index, 2010

Source: Gapminder/World Bank

NB: Inflation but not the differences in the cost of living between countries has been taken into account

Source: Gapminder/World Bank

Leadership

President Serge Sarkisian

Wealth

After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia became drawn into a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mostly Armenian-speaking region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenians in Karabakh fought for independence, supported by troops and resources from Armenia proper.

A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but Turkey and Azerbaijan imposed a trade blockade over the dispute. Drastic economic reform in the 1990s brought some stability and growth but unemployment and poverty remain widespread. The global financial crisis led to a sharp downturn in 2008. It receives most of its gas supply from Russia.

Armenia has a huge diaspora. It is estimated Armenia has lost up to a quarter of its population since independence, as young families seek what they hope will be a better life abroad.

Leadership

President Ilham Aliyev

Wealth

Since 1994 Western companies have invested millions in the development of the country's oil and gas reserves. However, the economy as a whole has not benefited as much as it might have done. Much of the money goes on defence spending, as a result of the conflict in the predominantly Armenian population of Nargorno-Karabakh in the 1990s. Backed by troops and resources from Armenia proper, the Armenians of Karabakh took control of the region and surrounding territory.

In 1994 a ceasefire was signed. But about one-seventh of Azerbaijan's territory remains occupied, while 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons are scattered around the country.

Leadership

President Alexander Lukashenko

Wealth

Belarus has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. This in part explains why it has remained above average in terms of GDP per capita.

While the economy took a dip in the mid-1990s during the tough post-Soviet transition period, President Lukashenko strengthened state control over the private sector in 1995 and ensured a strong relationship with Russia allowing for a relatively speedy recovery.

However, all that may be coming to an end after a recent breakdown in relations over energy pricing and Belarus's refusal to recognise the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Russia drops its favourable trade and lending arrangements the Belarus economy will be in real trouble.

Leadership

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (left)
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip

Wealth

Estonia is the wealthiest of the 15 former Soviet Republics. It has a thriving electronics and telecoms sector and strong trade relations with Finland, Sweden and Germany. Like its Baltic neighbours, in the decade after independence Estonia made a rapid transformation to embrace the free market.

It joined the European Union in May 2004, which prompted an investment boom, but in 2008 its economy was hit by the global financial crisis. It had the EU's worst year for unemployment which soared to 15.6% in May 2009 from 3.9% the previous year.

The government adopted tough austerity measures and won plaudits for getting the economy back into shape ahead of entry to the European single currency in January 2011. The prime minister had aimed for eurozone membership in January 2007 but high inflation led the government to put back the target entry date.

Leadership

President Mikhail Saakashvili (pictured)
Prime Minister: Nikoloz Gilauri

Wealth

Once a relatively affluent part of the USSR, with independence Georgia lost the cheap energy to which it had access in the Soviet period. As relations between Georgia and Russia deteriorated and Moscow broke trading ties, the Georgian economy nosedived.

The 2004 Rose Revolution also delayed Georgia's recovery from the difficult post-Soviet period. It saw the price of gas supplied by the Russian gas giant Gazprom rise sharply in 2006.

In August 2008, Georgian troops tried to re-establish control of the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This led to armed conflict with Russian forces sent to protect the two regions. This, along with the global financial crisis, had an impact on the economy.

Leadership

President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Wealth

In the 1990s, a small minority of Kazakhs grew very rich after independence through privatisation, while many Kazakhs suffered from the initial negative impact of economic reform. However, as a result of the growth since 2010, inequality is now less pronounced than in other Central Asian countries.

Kazakhstan enjoys vast mineral resources. Major foreign investment in oil has brought rapid economic growth. By 2010, per capita GDP was estimated to have grown more than tenfold since the mid 1990s.

An oil pipeline linking the Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossiysk opened in 2001. In 2008, Kazakhstan began pumping some oil exports through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to lessen its dependence on Russia as a transit country. A pipeline to China opened in 2005.

Leadership

President Roza Otunbayeva
Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev

Wealth

Kyrgyzstan is one the poorest of the 15 former republics but the world rise in gold prices has allowed it to remain financially stable. While its GDP per capita dipped after independence, it embraced privatisation and production soon picked up again.

Resentment at widespread poverty, along with ethnic divisions between north and south, led to the Tulip Revolution which brought Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. His government attracted aid from international financial institutions to tackle poverty and spur economic growth. But he was himself forced to resign in 2010 after another popular uprising sparked by low incomes, falling income from mirant workers and rising prices.

Kyrgyzstan is of strategic importance to Russia and the United States, both of which have military bases in the country.

Leadership

President Andris Berzins (left)
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis

Wealth

Latvia was welcomed as an EU member in May 2004. Like its Baltic neighbours, in the decade after independence Latvia made a rapid transformation to embrace the free market. Its economy grew by 50% between 2004 and 2007, but the 2008 global financial crisis hit hard and the former Baltic tiger endured one of the worst recessions in the EU.

Resulting social turmoil led to the fall of the Godmanis government in February 2009. By January 2010, unemployment had soared to 20%, prompting fears of further political instability. The prime minister pushed through some of the toughest austerity measures in Europe in an effort to rescue the state from bankruptcy and prepare Latvia to join the euro by 2014.

The deep public spending cuts gave rise to widespread anger at home, but the government's policies impressed international lenders - especially the IMF and the EU, which in 2009 agreed a 7.5bn euro ($10bn) bailout for the country.

Leadership

President Dalia Grybauskaite
Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius

Wealth

Lithuania has embraced market reform since independence although the immediate post-Soviet years saw GDP fall as the country re-adjusted. In the run-up to and period following EU entry the republic in 2004 it saw very strong economic growth. Lithuania applied to join the eurozone from January 2007 but was rejected because the inflation rate was too high.

The boom years came to a sudden end in 2008, and after two decades of capitalism, the country became one of the biggest victims of the global economic crisis. Unemployment soared and thousands came to seek work in western Europe.

Lithuania was the only former Baltic republic with nuclear power but in 2009 it had to close it down as a condition of joining the EU on safety grounds. It now relies heavily on Russia for its energy.

Leadership

President Marian Lupu (left)
PM Vlad Filat

Wealth

Already regarded as the poorest country in Europe, Moldova struggled with the transition to a market economy. Soon after independence, fighting broke out between Moldova and separatists in the Trans-Dniester region. There are now signs of recovery with growth in GDP since 2001 seeing a steady annual rise of between 5% and 10%.

In 2006 Russia stopped importing Moldovan wine, probably as a way of discouraging its interest in European integration. This was a severe blow as wine exports made up 25% of GDP - and 80% of that went to Russia.

Moldova is the most remittance-dependent economy in the world. According to the World Bank, 36% of its GDP came from migrant workers in 2007. Moldova's communist leadership - reluctant to embrace capitalism - have put off foreign investors, who are also worried about corruption and poor infrastructure. It is dependent on Romania, the Russian Federation and Ukraine for energy.

Leadership

President Dmitry Medvedev (left)
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Wealth

Russia's economic power lies in its natural resources - namely oil and gas. These allowed it to emerge stronger than ever after two crippling economic events - the immediate post-Soviet transition period and the 1998 financial crisis that saw the ruble devalued, a default on domestic debt and a moratorium on payment to foreign creditors.

While overall wealth has grown over the last two decades the gap between rich and poor is widening. The bottom 40% are being paid less in real terms than they were in 1991, while only the top 20% have seen their incomes more than double.

Leadership

President Emomali Sharipovich Rakhmon

Wealth

Tajikistan is the poorest nation of all the 15 former Soviet republics. It was plunged into a five-year civil war soon after independence ending in 1997. Up to 50,000 people were killed and over one-tenth of the population fled the country.

The economy has never really recovered and poverty is widespread. Almost half of Tajikistan's GDP is earned by an estimated two million migrants working abroad, mainly in Russia but the recession in 2009 threatened that income.

The country's main exports are cotton and aluminium but it is also dependent on oil and gas imports.

Leadership

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Wealth

Despite its gas wealth, much of Turkmenistan's population is still impoverished. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country entered a period of isolation that has only recently begun to end.

With foreign investors keeping away, the Turkmen economy remains underdeveloped. The country has been unable to benefit fully from its gas and oil deposits because of an absence of export routes and a dispute with Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan over the legal status of offshore oil.

Two-thirds of its gas exports go to Russia but it is trying to explore other markets by recently opening major pipelines to China and Iran. It is also considering taking part in the Nabucco pipeline - an EU-backed.

Leadership

President Viktor Yanukovych (left)
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov

Wealth

Ukraine was once described as the breadbasket of Europe, producing more than a quarter of the Soviet Union's agricultural output. But the country went through a period of rapid economic decline and runaway inflation after independence. Although trade with EU countries now exceeds that with Russia, Moscow is the largest individual trading partner.

Ukraine depends on Russia for its gas supplies and forms an important part of the pipeline transit route for Russian gas exports to Europe. A dispute over price rises in 2006 and 2009 prompted Russia briefly to cut supplies.

The economy's dependence on steel exports made it particularly vulnerable to the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008.

Leadership

President Islam Karimov

Wealth

The country is one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. However, economic reform has been slow and poverty and unemployment are widespread.

In 2005, after a violent government crackdown on unrest in the Andijan province, relations with the West cooled. In response, Uzbekistan expelled US forces from their base near the Afghan border and moved closer to Russia.

From 2008 onwards, ties with the West began improving again, spurred on by Europe's search for alternative energy sources in Central Asia and Uzbekistan's strategic importance for the anti-Taliban operation in Afghanistan. In 2009 the EU lifted its arms embargo. At the same time, relations with Moscow became less warm, with Uzbekistan in 2009 criticising plans for a Russian base in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Leadership

President Serge Sarkisian

Health

Official data on life expectancy at birth appears to have changed only little during the early 1990s and improved greatly since 1993. But if you take into account infant mortality, the true figure is likely to be about five years lower.

Armenia is still feeling the effects of the 1988 earthquake, which killed more than 25,000 people. Donors abroad continue to fund reconstruction efforts in the earthquake zone. The upheavals of the mid-1990s led to a "brain drain" of qualified medical staff. Health care is semi-privatised and there remain huge inequalities in the system. According to the World Health Organisation 65% of health care is funded by "informal" payments from patients to medical staff.

Health spending is 4.7% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Ilham Aliyev

Health

Life expectancy indicates the health service has not benefited from huge oil revenues.

While child immunisation is widespread, primary health care, medical facilities and training are poor. Poorly paid staff accept "informal" payments, or emigrate to Russia and Kazakhstan for better salaries.

Health spending is 5.8% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Alexander Lukashenko

Health

Belarus has retained a universal care system that provides free health care to its citizens, but repercussions of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have put pressure on the system.

As with most of the former Soviet republics, life expectancy dipped slightly in the mid 1990s but not as steeply as other former republics.

Health spending as a per cent of GDP is 5.8% (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (left)
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip

Health

Like all the other former republics, radical reform to the health care system began in the early 1990s which put some strain on the health of the nation. Training and introduction of family doctors was central to this reform which prevented a "brain drain" of qualified medical staff.

Health care in Estonia is mainly publicly financed with the help of a health insurance fund. Health spending is 7% of GDP(2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Mikhail Saakashvili (pictured)
Prime Minister: Nikoloz Gilauri

Health

Average life expectancy in 2009 was 72 years. Georgia's health system was decentralised in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR and a strategic health plan put in place between 2000 and 2009.

Economic and political tensions with Russia have had an impact on life expectancy that is now lower than it was in Soviet times. There was a significant dip in 2008 during the conflict over South Ossetia.

Spending on health dropped dramatically from just over 4% of GDP in 1991 to 0.5% in 1999. Health spending went up to about 5% of GDP after the Rose Revolution of 2003, and is now 10.1% - higher than the UK at 9.3% (2009 World Bank figures). About 25% of the population has health insurance.

Leadership

President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Health

While Kazakhstan is a relatively rich country, its life expectancy tells a different story. Maternal and infant mortality are high and the World Health Organisation blames poor quality maternal and child health services.

The people of Kazakhstan have to live with the aftermath of Soviet-era nuclear testing and toxic waste dumping, as well as with growing drug addiction levels and an increasing incidence of HIV/Aids.

Health spending is 4.5% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Roza Otunbayeva
Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev

Health

Life expectancy is slightly higher now than it was when Kyrgyzstan won its independence in 1991 but, as with all the Central Asian countries since the collapse of communism, there has been a continual a "brain drain" of doctors and nurses seeking better paid jobs in Kazakhstan and Russia.

On average, doctors get paid around US$100 a month and often have to take on a second job to make ends meet. In Russia they can earn six times that amount.

Health spending is 6.8% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Andris Berzins (left)
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis

Health

Trends in life expectancy are similar to those in other former Soviet Union countries. There is a sharp dip during the tough post-Soviet years as the economy adjusted to market reforms and then a gradual increase.

"In general, the lifestyle of the Latvian population is unhealthy," says the World Health Organisation. Causes for concern include high levels of alcohol consumption, an unhealthy diet, smoking and lack of exercise.

The health care system is funded by a combination of public and private providers. Health spending is 6.5% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Dalia Grybauskaite
Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius

Health

Life expectancy dipped during the immediate post-Soviet years of adjustment to a market economy and again slightly during the global economic crisis of 2008.

Public health is financed by statutory health insurance set up in 1991. While basic health care is free, all drugs have to be paid for in full, with the exception of children, the elderly and the unemployment. There is also a private health sector providing mostly outpatient health care services. Health spending is 6.6% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Marian Lupu (left)
PM Vlad Filat

Health

Moldova used to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. After the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing economic crisis, government spending on health care was cut drastically and health standards fell rapidly.

Between 1998 and 2000, the Ministry of Health slashed the number of primary health care facilities and hospitals and many rural hospitals were closed. About 95% of all drugs are imported. Health insurance is compulsory.

Health spending as a per cent of GDP has gone up in the last few years to 11.9% - the highest of all the former republics (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Dmitry Medvedev (left)
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Health

Life expectancy dipped dramatically during the post-Soviet transition period in the mid-1990s, that increased stress levels, drug use, HIV/AIDs, suicide rates and alcoholism among the general population.

The 1994 war in Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation, may also be a factor as well as the restructuring of what was once one of the world's leading health care systems. It dipped again during the 1998 and 2008 financial crises.

Health spending is 5.4% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Emomali Sharipovich Rakhmon

Health

Life expectancy was already one of the lowest of the former republics when the USSR collapsed but it took a steep dip in the mid 1990s because of the devastating civil war. This resulted in thousands of casualties and a steep rise in emigration of skilled workers such as doctors and teachers, most of whom were not ethnic Tajiks, but Russian, Ukrainian or Jewish.

Poverty, poor sanitation, regular typhoid epidemics, acute shortages of medicines and an increase in drug addiction have all taken their toll. However, recent government efforts to improve primary health care and give better access to the most needy rather than to the most wealthy may explain the small rise in life expectancy in recent years.

Health spending is 5.3% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Health

Life expectancy is higher than it was in 1990 but is still the lowest of the former Soviet republics. The president was at one time Health Minister and one of his tasks was to implement closure of most medical facilities, which brought public health care to the point of collapse. Since coming to power, President Berdymuhamedov has said he will improve health care, but reform has been largely cosmetic.

Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres) closed its offices in the capital Ashgabat in 2009 because the government would not allow it to implement a programme to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Health spending is 2.3% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Viktor Yanukovych (left)
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov

Health

The health service, centralised under the Soviet Union, struggled to cope with a sharp decline in general health during the painful transition to a market economy. At the end of the 1990s, the health system was reformed and there were improvements in care. But since the 2005 revolution that promised free health care, internal political wrangling has slowed the pace of health care reform.

Ukraine shut down the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 2000, 14 years after the explosion and fallout that killed more than 10,000 people. But millions continue to suffer from health problems as a result of the accident.

Health spending as a per cent of GDP is 7% (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Islam Karimov

Health

Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country. Life expectancy has remained low at around 67 but relatively stable as the country was not affected by the financial crises of 1998 and 2008.

The post-Soviet exodus of qualified doctors and nurses for a better standard of living in countries like Russia took its toll on overall health care. Although all citizens have the right to free health care, bribes are frequently offered to get quicker access to the health service.

Health spending is 5.2% of GDP (2009 World Bank figures).

Leadership

President Serge Sarkisian

Democracy

Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian won the 2008 presidential elections, but thousands of opposition supporters protested saying the poll was rigged. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated him and Europe's main election monitoring body, the OSCE said the vote had mostly met international standards.

Outgoing president and close ally, Robert Kocharian, handpicked the prime minister to succeed him after Mr Sarkisian's Republican Party swept parliamentary polls in May 2007.

Censorship is prohibited under a 2004 media law. However, libel and defamation remained punishable by prison terms until May 2010 and journalists have been sentenced under these laws. The authorities use "informal pressure" to control broadcasting outlets, Freedom House says, and violence against journalists is a problem.

Leadership

President Ilham Aliyev

Democracy

Often accused of rampant corruption and election-rigging, the ruling Aliyev family and its circle walk a tightrope between Russian and Western regional geo-strategic interests. Ilham Aliyev took over as president from his father, Heydar, in 2003. Western observers said the campaign had been marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias.

Mr Aliyev won a second term of office in 2008, scoring an overwhelming victory in an election that was boycotted by the main opposition parties. Western observers said that, despite being an improvement on previous votes, it fell short of fully democratic standards.

Reporters Without Borders says journalists and bloggers "work in a climate of endemic impunity and under persistent pressure from the authorities".

Leadership

President Alexander Lukashenko

Democracy

Belarus has been ruled with an increasingly iron fist since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests.

In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the US as Europe's only remaining "outpost of tyranny". Belarus has been heavily criticised by human rights groups for suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 154th out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index

Leadership

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (left)
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip

Democracy

Estonia is a western-style democracy with regular free and fair elections. Toomas Hendrik Ilves is president, but the role is mainly ceremonial.

The centre-right coalition led by Andrus Ansip increased its parliamentary majority in elections held in March 2011. Mr Ansip was Estonia's first sitting prime minister to be re-elected since the country left the Soviet Union in 1991.

The country held the world's first parliamentary "e-vote" in 2007. Estonia ranked ninth out of 178 nations in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Leadership

President Mikhail Saakashvili (pictured)
Prime Minister: Nikoloz Gilauri

Democracy

In 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution protests which forced his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, to resign. But in 2007, allegations of corruption and organising a murder triggered mass protests demanding new elections.

Mr Saakashvili accused Russia of fomenting the unrest, and dispersed the protests with riot police and a state of emergency, drawing accusations of authoritarianism. He also brought forward presidential elections which he won in the first round. In 2010, parliament passed constitutional changes curbing the power of the presidency and boosting those of the prime minister. But the opposition accused Mr Saakashvili of planning to stay on as a powerful PM once his presidential term ends in 2013.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and journalists often criticize officials, but US-based Freedom House says the media environment is highly politicised.

Leadership

President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Democracy

In power virtually unchallenged since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev has focused on economic reform while resisting moves to democratise the political system.

He remains popular among ordinary Kazakhs. His supporters say he preserved inter-ethnic accord and stability during the reform in the 1990s, and is widely credited for the country's impressive economic growth in first decade of the new millennium.

Press freedom is enshrined in the constitution, but observers say private and opposition media are subject to harassment and censorship.

Leadership

President Roza Otunbayeva
Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev

Democracy

Kyrgyzstan's relatively strong democratic credentials were lost when corruption and nepotism took hold under President Akayev. Elections were flawed, opposition figures faced harassment and imprisonment, and opposition newspapers were closed. His successor after the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, failed to restore full confidence in state institutions.

In April 2010 he was toppled and an interim government was set up under former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva. She supervised a referendum in which 90% of voters backed a new constitution intended to reduce the powers of the presidency and transform the country into former Soviet Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy.

Press freedom is enshrined in the constitution, but monitors say private and opposition media are subject to harassment and censorship.

Leadership

President Andris Berzins (left)
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis

Democracy

Latvia is a western-style democracy with regular free and fair elections. Since independence Latvia has been run by a coalition which chooses a prime minister.

Valdis Dombrovskis became prime minister in 2009 after the previous coalition government of Ivars Godmanis collapsed amid widespread discontent at its handling of the economic crisis. President Andris Berzins was voted into office by parliament in June 2011 amid controversy over corruption.

The media operate freely, with few legal restrictions. However, there have been serious press freedom violations in recent years, according to Reporters Without Borders. It cited the murder of a media owner in April 2010, and said journalists have been stabbed or beaten in the past decade.

Leadership

President Dalia Grybauskaite
Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius

Democracy

Lithuania is a western-style democracy with regular free and fair elections. Dalia Grybauskaite was voted in as Lithuania's first woman president with an emphatic election victory in May 2009.

The prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, is leader of the conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats group. His coalition government with three smaller centre-right parties won parliamentary approval in December 2010. Together they hold 80 seats in Lithuania's 141-member parliament.

The media are free and operate independently of the state but the national broadcaster has sometimes had to fend off attempts by politicians to influence editorial policy.

Leadership

President Marian Lupu (left)
PM Vlad Filat

Democracy

In 2001 Moldova became the first former Soviet republic to elect a Communist president through free and fair elections. But when the Communists were re-elected in April 2009 elections with 50% of the vote, the results were overturned after mass protests sparked by vote-rigging allegations and another election called.

Vladmir Filat's Liberal Democratic Party formed a coalition with other anti-Communist parties.

While the constitution guarantees press freedom, the penal code and press laws prohibit defamation of the state. Reporters Without Borders ranked Moldova 75th out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index.

Leadership

President Dmitry Medvedev (left)
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Democracy

President Yeltsin, the first democratically elected leader of post-Communist Russia, ensured the power of president remained strong. Since 2000 Vladimir Putin has dominated leadership of this powerful nation.

Mr Putin's chosen successor, President Medvedev, was sworn in in 2008 as Russia's third president since the fall of the USSR. Many believe that Mr Medvedev may still be playing second fiddle to Mr Putin, now prime minister. There is also speculation that Mr Putin may stand for the presidency again when his successor's term ends in 2012.

Press and TV is a regular target for criticism and condemnation from media freedom watchdogs. Russian journalists run the risk of attack and even murder if they delve too deeply into sensitive subjects such as corruption, organised crime or rights abuses.

Leadership

President Emomali Sharipovich Rakhmon

Democracy

President Emomali Rakhmon has had a firm grip on power since 1992. Western observers said legislative elections in 2005 and 2010 failed to meet international standards. In 2006 the president won a third term in office in an election which international observers said was neither free nor fair. Opposition parties boycotted the vote.

President Rakhmon does, however, retain substantial public support because he helped bring an end to civil war of the 1990s. The government often justifies restrictions and oppressive measures with a need to combat Islamic extremists.

Media rights organisations report that, although provided for in the constitution, press freedom is not widely respected. Freedom House says independent journalists face harassment and intimidation.

Leadership

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Democracy

This one-party state was dominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, led by the President Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006. He made himself the centre of an omnipresent personality cult and spent large sums of public money on grandiose projects while heavily cutting social welfare.

His successor, Kurbanguly Berdymuhamedov,was sworn in as president after elections in 2007 regarded by Western observers as rigged. Many analysts now say a new personality cult is emerging.

The government has a total monopoly of the media. "The state's absolute control of the press remains untouched", says Reporters Without Borders.

Leadership

President Viktor Yanukovych (left)
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov

Democracy

The 2004 Orange revolution allowed the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to work towards make democratic reforms and media freedom. But his efforts to move towards Nato and EU membership made slow progress because the West was reluctant to antagonise a resurgent Russia and the Ukrainian public were divided on the matter.

His rival, Viktor Yanukovych, made a dramatic political comeback, winning the 2010 presidential election. He says his aim is to balance relations between Russia and the West, with EU integration as a "strategic aim". However, the speed with which he agreed to extend the Russian lease on the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea raised opposition suspicions of this balance.

In 2010, watchdog Reporters Without Borders said "multiple press freedom violations" had been recorded since Mr Yanukovych return to power.

Leadership

President Islam Karimov

Democracy

President Islam Karimov has been in power since 1989. The country's political system is highly authoritarian. A UN report has described the use of torture as "systematic".

In May 2005, troops in the eastern city of Andijan opened fire on protesters demonstrating against the imprisonment of people charged with Islamic extremism. Opponents of President Karimov accused the authorities of a brutal determination to crush all dissent. The president blamed fundamentalists seeking to establish a Muslim caliphate in Central Asia.

Opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. Despite constitutional guarantees of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders says the law punishes journalists for "interference in internal affairs" and "insulting the dignity of citizens".

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