A BIGGER percentage of the world's population than ever before now lives in free nations, according to an annual report by the human rights organization Freedom House. There are now 99 democracies in the world - eight more than last year, and more than double the number of 1972.
But the fast rate of geopolitical change in recent years has unleashed antidemocratic forces as well - as the sad case of the former Yugoslavia shows. Ethnic and racial tensions have been rising even in such established democracies as Germany.
"The world is at a juncture where democracies may continue to consolidate or suffer a series of setbacks," said R. Bruce McColm, Freedom House executive director.
Venezuela, for instance, has long been one of Latin America's most established democracies. But in 1992 it was riven by coup attempts and sometimes-violent protests against the economic policies of President Carlos Andres Perez.
Venezuela was thus one of three countries Freedom House downgraded from the category "free" to "partly free" for 1992. The two others were Estonia and Latvia, both of which passed laws restricting the rights and citizenship of Russian-speaking residents.
Resurrected communists under different political names were elected to power in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and several other parts of the former Soviet empire, according to Freedom House. Some nations taking hesitant steps toward a democratic political system were troubled by political-party violence, such as Algeria and the Congo.
Still, the news on international political change was far from all bad. "President Clinton will inherit the freest world in human history," the study notes.
Fully 69 percent of the world's 5.4 billion people live in nations that Freedom House judges fully or partly free. Of the 186 countries monitored, only 38 are listed as "not free" - though this list includes China, the most populous nation on earth.
In recent years, a new, tripartite world pattern has been emerging, the study says. Nations are split into democracies; hybrid authoritarian regimes making some moves toward liberalization, such as Ghana; and "anachronistic residue" such as North Korea, China, and feudal Middle Eastern kingdoms.
Overall, 21 nations last year changed their category in the Freedom House survey. Of these 12 got freer. They ranged from Kuwait, whose reestablishment of Parliament raised it to the "partly free" label, to Mali, where April elections finished the move to the "free" category begun with the ousting of its longtime strongman, General Moussa Taore, in 1991. The nine nations where civil and political liberties declined ranged from Bhutan to Sierra Leone to Uzbekistan.
The worst tragedy of lost freedom was Bosnia, the only nation Freedom House counts as both "not free" and a democracy. "The West's failure to respond to Serbian aggression in the Balkans cast a long shadow over the continued expansion of freedom around the world," according to Freedom House's Mr. McColm.