Kremlin Faces Important Test in Olympic City Elections
Freedom House is deeply concerned by reports that Russian authorities are harassing and marginalizing opposition candidates running for the mayor of Sochi, the city chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The winner of the April 26 election will play a critical role in Russia's preparations for the Games, making it essential for the Kremlin to guarantee that all candidates can campaign freely and safely and that state resources are not used to further the campaigns of pro-government candidates.
"A competitive mayor's race that is conducted with integrity and fairness will set an important precedent for the Olympic preparations in Sochi," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "A democratically-elected mayor will be in a much better position to adequately address citizen concerns that preparations are already being mismanaged."
Freedom House is particularly disturbed by reports that police in Sochi confiscated more than 100,000 campaign brochures promoting opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic. Last month, Nemtsov accused pro-Kremlin youth activists of throwing ammonia in his face. Both he and billionaire candidate Alexander Lebedev received mysterious deposits to their bank accounts that could have disqualified them from the ballot. Broadcasters also are refusing to give airtime to opposition candidates, while continuing to cover the pro-government candidate, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov.
"The mayoral race in Sochi is an important test of whether President Dmitry Medvedev will allow a modicum of electoral democracy to remain in the country," said Windsor.
Electoral rights have steadily declined in Russia over the last few years. The country received a downward trend in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World—Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties—because the 2008 presidential election that brought Medvedev to power was neither free nor fair. The Kremlin marginalized opposition candidates with laws and regulations that have effectively made Russia a one-party state and rendered effective international vote-monitoring impossible.
The parliament also approved a law in 2008 that would extend presidential terms from four to six years—a move seen as a prelude to return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Putin scrapped gubernatorial elections in 2004 and carefully engineered the outcome of the 2007 Duma elections to ensure pro-Kremlin parties achieved a supermajority in the lower house.
Russia is ranked Not Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World and in the 2008 version of Freedom of the Press.
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Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Russia since 1990.
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