“It is [the] bigotry of lower expectations [to say] that Russians will always favor a strong man over democracy.” — Mark Lagon

Unsurprisingly, Freedom House’s recent 2015 Freedom in the World report has shown a decline in civil liberties in Russia. Mark Lagon,* the new president of Freedom House, spoke with IMR’s editor-in-chief Olga Khvostunova about Russia’s current political trajectory, Putin’s stakes in the Ukraine conflict, and what the West can do to empower Russian civil society organizations. 

Olga Khvostunova: The recent report by Freedom House summarizes major developments that affected political rights and civil liberties in various countries last year. One of the things the report notes is that some dictatorships, including Russia, are currently “losing the veneer of legitimacy.” What caused this change?

Mark Lagon: The big finding is that authoritarian governments are increasingly being more brazen in their [use of] traditional coercive methods of control and limiting expression. They are less trying to use the language of democracy and [are] becoming more direct. The question is whether this brazenness is because they feel confident, having an iron fist, or whether, in fact, it’s a white-knuckled grip of concern. We continue to think that turning to coercive, cruder methods does not represent confidence. When it comes to Russia, its tactics in the entire region, particularly with respect to the Baltics and Ukraine, were aimed at suffusing the area with a media campaign. The situation with the media is important in itself, though. The decline in Russia’s rating on civil liberties from five to six on a scale of one to seven** is in large part due to the media environment in Russia—increased media controls, increased controls on independent or foreign media, and a spiking of propaganda on state-run television. Read more on the Institute of Modern Russia's website

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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