Our lead editorial touts the latest “Nations in Transit” report from Freedom House, which finds that Russia “has undergone the largest decline of any country in the study” of 29 countries in post-Soviet space where human rights and democracy are concerned. Here is the executive summary from the Russia report.
Over the past decade, Russia’s government has become increasingly authoritarian. Boris Yeltsin’s presidential tenure from 1991 to 1999 saw competitive, but tainted, elections, relatively free television discussions, an incipient civil society, and somewhat decentralized political power. However, it laid the groundwork for increasingly authoritarian rule with the 1993 tank assault on the Parliament, a super-presidential constitution, the first Chechen war, and extensive corruption.
With the price of oil rising since 2000, Vladimir Putin was able to provide the country improved living standards and a higher international profile, but fewer of the Yeltsin-era gains in media freedom, electoral competition, and decentralization. High levels of corruption and a lack of judicial independence remained constant under both presidencies. Under Putin, the state greatly increase its control over the economy, in particular, over the lucrative energy sectors. While the Russian population is generally well-educated, it remains politically inert.
With little prospect for change in the current leadership, the country continues to sink into a stagnant form of authoritarianism at home. As has been the case for almost two decades, Russia actively tries to undermine democratic developments in neighboring countries.
Since neither Prime Minister Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev have ruled out the possibility of running for president in 2012, the current system seems likely to continue into the foreseeable future. According to the present model, leadership is focused on improving the Russian economy and maintaining a highly centralized political system. A culture of impunity is imbedded in Russia, where human rights activists and opposition journalists are killed, and the perpetrators are typically neither found nor prosecuted. This sends a strong signal to potential activists to avoid political engagement. The government has also failed to address on-going instability in the North Caucasus and its repressive tactics only seem to attract new recruits to the insurgency.
National Democratic Governance
While pundits continue to discuss the nature of the relationship between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev and the latter’s ability to implement a program of modernization, all aspects of national governance remain intact from Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Russia’s key political problems include the insurgency in the North Caucasus and violence against journalists and human rights defenders. The Kremlin appears either unwilling or unable to address these issues. Russia has an authoritarian system of government that gives its citizens few tools to hold their leaders accountable. Russia’s rating for national democratic governance remains at 6.50.
2009 marked a new low for elections in Russia. On October11, Prime Minister Putin’s United Russia won more than 70 percent of the seats in regional and local elections. Unaffiliated candidates won most of the other seats. The level of falsifications was so high that it provoked the usually quiescent, quasiopposition parties in the Duma to stage a walkout. This year the authorities continued to tinker with the electoral legislation, making it easier to eliminate unwanted candidates, and to ensure that there will be no surprises in the 2012 presidential elections. Russia’s rating for electoral process remains at an abysmal 6.75.
This year social activists continued to face physical threats and difficulties exercising their right to assembly. Nevertheless, there were numerous social protests during the year, particularly against government restrictions on imported cars. The authorities laid the legal-institutional groundwork for a crackdown on historians who challenge the state-supported portrayal of the past. However, in a positive development, the courts ruled a 2008 police raid of Memorial’s offices in St. Petersburg illegal. Additionally, bloggers found new ways to use the Internet to mobilize groups and the frequency of racially-motivated crimes appeared to drop.
While there are some positive signs, the overall atmosphere for NGOs remains extremely difficult in light of the strict 2006 law governing their activities. Moreover, activists clearly remain vulnerable to attacks by unknown assailants in a system that fails to punish such perpetrators. Russia’s rating for civil society remains at 5.75. Independent Media. Russia’s main television broadcasters remain under tight central control, though free discussion continues on less popular outlets, such as Ekho Moskvy and opposition Web sites. Censorship increased and violence against journalists continued. While future trends do not look promising as a business with close ties to the Kremlin is buying many of Russia’s most popular Web sites, and regional leaders, like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, use the threat of slander charges to pressure critical activists, Russia’s rating for independent media remains at 6.25.
Local Democratic Governance
Little changed in the area of local governance over the course of the year. Although the idea of returning to direct gubernatorial elections remains popular, Russia’s leadership has no intention of restoring this practice. Rather, President Medvedev introduced superficial changes, allowing the top party in each region to prepare a list of gubernatorial candidates from which the president selects. Additionally, governors and city councils have new powers to remove elected mayors. Local governments often lack the resources to meet their obligations and are subject to the political and budgetary whims of higher officials.
The federal government has yet to effectively quell the violence in the North Caucasus. Russia’s rating for local democratic governance remains unchanged at 5.75. Judicial Framework and Independence. Russia’s court system remains under the shadow of prominent political cases, such as those surrounding Anna Politkovskaya and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The former demonstrated the prosecutors’ inability to prepare an effective case, while the latter showed how the legal system is used for political purposes. Investigations into the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in pre-trial detention revealed that the authorities denied him medical care in order to secure testimony against his client, Hermitage Capital Management, which alleged that corrupt officials had stolen its assets and public funds. Judges remain beholden to their superiors and are pressured to produce convictions. Security services are increasing their ability to monitor private correspondence. Russia’s penitentiaries remain unreformed with torture a common practice. Russia’s rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 5.50.
Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Although President Medvedev has devoted considerable attention to the problem, his actions have had little effect. The long-festering problem of corruption in the police force became the focus of public attention in November when Aleksei Dymovsky, a police major in the Black Sea port city of Novorossiisk described the force’s widespread abuses in a YouTube video addressed to the prime minister. The activity of organized crime syndicates has increased. At the same time, the authorities have continued to carry out illegal “corporate raids” on businesses. The decision to close the vast majority of Russia’s casinos has not impacted this general trend. Due to the growing prevalence of bribe-paying, the failure of the authorities to address widespread police corruption, and the growing use of sophisticated legal and illegal means to pressure business, Russia’s rating for corruption deteriorates from 6.25 to 6.50
Outlook for 2010
The global economic crisis changed the trajectory of Russia’s economy from rapid growth to sharp contraction, which will undoubtedly put additional pressure on the federal and regional governments to increase spending to reduce social tensions. Russia’s economy remains dependent on fluctuations in energy prices, though prices are currently high enough to maintain the status quo. Strains are likely to appear in the political system as the 2012 presidential elections approach, forcing Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to lay out their future plans. The most likely immediate source of problems for the regime includes an incompetent response to a natural disaster or large-scale industrial accident, a flare in North Caucasus violence, the exposure of direct links between officials and political assassinations, a dramatic decline in police discipline, or a spike in organized crime activity. The regime grows more fragile as it becomes less sensitive to society’s feedback.