The world’s go-getters for rule of law

A global survey finds most of the countries that are improving their rule of law are near Russia. They can’t learn fast enough.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attend a regional summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, Oct. 14.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred many countries to rethink how to safeguard their societies. Sweden and Finland opted to join NATO. Dozens of nations are adjusting to the war’s disruption in oil and wheat supplies. The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to affirm the sovereignty of nation-state borders.

On one measure, the invasion brought a more subtle influence. The latest global index by the World Justice Project found most of the countries that have improved their rule of law over the past year are near Russia: Bulgaria, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Uzbekistan.

Most are former parts of the Soviet empire that Russia seeks to reconstitute. Russia’s own ranking dropped to 107 out of 140 countries surveyed by the Washington-based watchdog. That reflects a worldwide decline in what the survey defines as universal principles of rule of law, such as open, democratic government and impartial justice in the courts. In two-thirds of the countries, “fundamental rights” have fallen.

The best example of a country eager to improve rule of law is the giant Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. Reform efforts under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, such as tackling corruption, pushed Kazakhstan up the survey’s rankings to outscore Hungary. And Hungary is a member of the European Union, albeit one on an EU watchlist for backsliding on basic rights.

Kazakhstan is in the crosshairs of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his arbitrary exercise of power. He has said “Kazakhs never had a state,” a claim similar to one he made about Ukraine before the invasion. This threat has pushed more reforms in Kazakhstan that affirm equality before the law and accountable government, helping to shore up the country’s identity and unity.

Ukraine itself had made enough progress on rule of law and democracy in the decade before the invasion that its people were quite willing to defend the country against Russia. Universal principles are a binding force for people that put them into practice. Russia’s neighbors know that better than most.

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