Friday, February 14, 2014

Freedom in Russia

Entering the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Russia's stance on gay issues has been forefront.  While Russia's gay issues are important, the nation does not do particularly well when it comes to other aspects of freedom as measured in Russia's annual freedom ranking by Freedom House for 2013.  

The Freedom House study looks at two broad categories of freedom; political rights and civil liberties.  Political rights are evaluated by looking at three subcategories; electoral process, political pluralism and participation and functioning of government.  Civil liberties are based on an evaluation of four subcategories; freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law and personal autonomy and individual rights.  Each nation is assigned a number rating from 1 to 7 with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least free.  The ratings are based on the answers given to 10 political rights questions and 15 civil liberties questions with points between 0 and 4 assigned with 0 being the lowest degree of freedom and 4 being the greatest degree of freedom.  A perfectly free nation would therefore have a score of 100.  The average of the political rights are civil liberties ratings becomes the freedom rating with free nations having a score of 1.0 to 2.5, partly free having a score of 3.0 to 5.0 and not free nations having a score of 5.5 to 7.0.  To help you put these numbers into perspective, here are the political and civil scores for some key nations and nations that have been in the news lately:

United States: 1 on both
Canada: 1 on both
United Kingdom: 1 on both
Australia: 1 on both
Germany: 1 on both
Egypt: 5 on both
Iran: 6 on both
Iraq: 6 on both
Syria: 7 on both
Zimbabwe: 6 on both

Let's open by looking at the number and percentage of the world's nations that Freedom House considers free, partly free or not free:

In total, 3.046 billion people live in free nations, 1.614 billion people live in partly free nations and 2.377 billion people live in nations that are not free.

Now, let's dig into the analysis of freedom in Russia.  Here are the freedom ratings for Russia:

Civil Liberties: 5 (partly free)
Political Rights: 6 (not free)
Overall Freedom Rating: 5.5 (not free)

What aspects of freedom are lacking in Russia?  Let's start by looking at a bit of history.

After the collapse of Communism, the 1993 constitution put in place a strong presidency that had the power to dismiss and appoint the Prime Minister.  Vladimir Putin took over as Russia's President in early 2000, defeating his opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, 53 percent to 29 percent in the March 2000 presidential election.  At that time, Putin reduced the influence of the Federal Assembly which is composed of the lower chamber State Duma (450 seats) and the upper chamber Federation Council 166 seats) and strengthened Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB.  In the 2003 Duma elections, the United Russia Party, closely affiliated with Putin took 306 out of 450 seats.  Putin followed this in March 2004, taking 71.4 percent of the votes over his opponent, Communist Partybacked Nikolay Kharitonov who took only 13.7 percent of the votes.  Putin put measures in place that cracked down on groups that were promoting democracy and, in particular, focussed on ending moves toward liberalization and criticism of official policies.  In 2007, the United Russia Party took 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma with the Communists winning only 57 seats.  At that point, since Putin could not constitutionally seek a third term in office, he handpicked his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who won the March 2008 election with 70.3 percent of the vote.  Medvedev appointed Putin as his Prime Minister and went on to change the 1993 constitution to extend a presidents term to six years.  By doing this, Putin opened the door for his return and it was only a matter of time until Medvedev stepped aside to allow for Putin's return in March 2012.  Unfortunately, the election didn't go as planned with United Russia capturing only 238 of the 450 seats, followed by the Communists with 92 seats.  Discontented voters held demonstrations in Moscow, asking for an annulment of the election results.  In the Presidential election, things still looked rosy for Putin; he won 63.6 percent of the votes compared to 17.2 percent for the Communist leader, Zyuganov.

Now, let's look at political rights in Russia.  The ability of the President to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minster has proven to be problematic.  Putin's move to appoint Medvedev was a cynical ploy that allowed him to skirt the intentions of the two-term limit.  As well, half of the members of the Federal Assembly are appointed by governors and half by regional legislatures.  Since only locally elected politicians can serve in the Federal Assembly, this move is expected to benefit the United Russia Party the most since most local officeholders are members of the party.  A new law in 2012 restored gubernatorial elections ending the system of presidential appointments, however, the new rules allow regional officials to screen candidates for governor, ensuring that pro-Kremlin incumbents win.

The Russian constitution allows for freedom of speech, however, the national government controls all of the national television networks either directly or through state-owned companies.  A few radio stations and publications offer an alternative, however, they have small audiences.  A substantial number of journalists have been killed since Putin first came to power.  The government extensively manipulates online information and analysis and passed laws in 2012 that were allegedly designed to target information that was unsuitable for children.  The Federal Supervision Agency allows authorities to close websites that are deemed to be "extremist".  At the same time, legislation was introduced that hiked fines for protestors, made libel and criminal offence and forced foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents.  Here's what Reporters Without Borders had to say about freedom of information in Russia in 2011:

"Although most of the Russian population gets its news from TV, there is a glaring lack of diversity in the broadcast media. As for the print media, just a few national newspapers led by Novaya Gazetaescape control and ensure a minimum of pluralism. Radio Ekho Moskvy and Radio Svoboda are other examples of independent news outlets.

At the local level, the situation is more varied. Some regions, such as Perm, enjoyed relatively free media while in other regions the media are entirely controlled by the local political authorities or powerful figures often linked to major energy or industrial groups. Despite intense pressure, a few media manage to do independent reporting in the Caucasus, where Dosh and Chernovik are examples of journalistic dedication.

Although lawsuits and prosecutions are common, violence continues to be the main problem.Physical attacks on journalists are frequent but usually go unpunished despite President Medvedev’s statements on the subject. According to the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a Reporters Without Borders partner organization, there were at least 58 physical attacks on journalists in 2010.

The Internet, a space where independent voices still find expression, is now being targeted by the authorities, who are trying to develop online filtering and surveillance. Bloggers are the victims of lawsuits and prosecutions, often under the “anti-extremism” law, which was amended in July 2007.
Cyber-attacks are also on the increase, targeting above all blogging platforms such as LiveJouranal and the websites of independent newspapers such as Novaya Gazeta. The growing frequency of website blocking and attacks on bloggers resulted in Russia being including in the countries “under surveillance” in the Enemies of the Internet report that Reporters Without Borders released on 12 March 2011."

At least some of these legislative changes have been enacted to control terrorism, particularly in the Caucasus region.

Freedom of religion is not clear cut either.  A 1997 law allows the state to take control of religion and makes it difficult for new religions to establish themselves.  Non-traditional groups including Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are often harassed.  Despite the fact that they were officially recognized in 1991 and in 1996, Jehovah's Witnesses have been subjected to multiple warnings on "the impermissibility of carrying out extremist activities".  Raids on Kingdom Halls have taken place and one Kingdom Hall in Moscow Region was burned down in 2008 by arsonists.

Russia's judiciary is not independent from the executive branch of government.  The judicial system has been fraught with politically-motivated decisions, including the case of Mikhail Khodorokovsky, a pro-democracy Russian oligarch and head of Yukos, once the wealthiest man in Russia, who was found guilty of tax evasion and fraud in 2005 and sentenced to nine years in prison.  It is believed that comments like this about democracy in Russia that may have sealed his fate:

"It is the Singapore model, it is a term that people understand in Russia these days. It means that theoretically you have a free press, but in practice there is self-censorship. Theoretically you have courts; in practice the courts adopt decisions dictated from above. Theoretically there are civil rights enshrined in the constitution; in practice you are not able to exercise some of these rights."

Fortunately for Mr. Khodorokovsky, Vladimir Putin pardoned him in December 2013, cutting three months off his sentence so that he could visit his ill mother in Germany.  Unfortunately, Russia's highest court ruled that he owes $557 million in back taxes, a move that will prevent him from returning to Russia.

Russia's criminal code allows for jury trials in serious cases, however, that rarely happens in practice.  Juries are more likely to acquit defendants than judges, however, these verdicts are often overturned by higher courts which can order retrials until the desired outcome is achieved.  Russia also ended the use of jury trials in cases involving terrorism.

From this posting, we can see that freedom in Russia is a very complex issue.  While the nation has made great strides compared to what existed during the Soviet-era, freedom is not guaranteed for many key social issues including religion, the press and the courts.  The guiding hand of Vladimir Putin seems to be pervasive and it appears that he is attempting to remake Russia into his own image.


  1. During Obama's presidency the USA has not expanded its international legal obligations in the humanitarian field and still participates only in three out of nine core human rights treaties. The Americans have not so far ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (only Somalia has not also acceded to it). The main outstanding issue is an abhorrent Guantanamo prison. President B. Obama sanctioned indefinite and extrajudicial detention and the resumption of military tribunals.

  2. I see the Russian trolls are busy again with their whataboutisms.
    The article is totally accurate. As one wag put it, sovereign democracy is to democracy as an electric chair is to a chair. Putin fears liberal democracy of the west more than anything.

  3. "It is the Singapore model, it is a term that people understand in Russia these days. It means that theoretically you have a free press, but in practice there is self-censorship. Theoretically you have courts; in practice the courts adopt decisions dictated from above. Theoretically there are civil rights enshrined in the constitution; in practice you are not able to exercise some of these rights."

    And how does this differs from any other politically correct "liberal democracy"?

    Freedom is nothing more than submission to the elites who tell you what your "freedom" can and cannot mean.
    And nothing more.