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Russia at a Crossroads: Upcoming Elections Defining Issue
Russia's political leadership is failing to fulfill its promises to uphold basic democratic standards, Freedom House said today. Russia is the most strategically important country to be downgraded to "Not Free" by Freedom House since President Bush assumed office in 2001.
At a briefing this morning in Washington, Freedom House presented detailed information on the failure of the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin to rein in corrupt bureaucrats, strengthen private property protections, uphold the rule of law, and promote citizens' engagement in Russia's public life.
Russia's 2008 presidential elections provide a crucial litmus test for President Putin to signal his regime's willingness to put Russia back on the democratic track.
"President Putin has not made good on his pledges to advance democracy in Russia," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "It is not too soon for him to state clearly and publicly that he will support -- and take action now to ensure -- free and fair elections in which diverse viewpoints are respected and genuine political competition is encouraged. The Bush Administration should push that point with the Russian government during meetings this weekend in Moscow."
At the briefing, two Russia experts -- Michael McFaul and Robert Orttung -- cited the systematic efforts of the Russian authorities to limit the influence of independent actors, including the news media, opposition political parties and civic groups. The denial of political space to key actors in Russian society has contributed to a host of major challenges, including pervasive corruption.
Separate reports authored by McFaul and Orttung and released today by Freedom House, document the failure of Putin's policies since he assumed office in 2000. The detailed reports make clear that Putin's concentration of power has denied the political rights and civil liberties of Russia's citizens. He also has failed to deliver on promises to increase stability and create conditions for sustained economic growth and prosperity.
McFaul, author of the Russia report in Freedom House's survey of governance, "Countries at the Crossroads," argued that "after five years in office, the Putin program to concentrate power in the Kremlin has not strengthened the performance of the Russian state. On the contrary, it has made the Russian government less responsive to its own citizens' needs."
"Corruption is a critical problem hindering Russian political development," said Orttung, author of the Russia report in Freedom House's forthcoming "Nations in Transit 2005." "Unfortunately, President Putin's efforts to focus power in the Kremlin are only making the problem worse by reducing society's ability to hold public officials accountable," he said.
Freedom House called on the Bush Administration -- at all levels -- to send a clear and consistent message to Russia about the importance of democracy, and to note that failure to put in place conditions for a fair electoral contest in 2008 would jeopardize Russia's continued membership in the G-8 Group of Industrialized Nations. President Bush and the EU leaders should also emphasize that:
The U.S. and Europe will not give into recent Russian demands to downgrade the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's commitments to democracy, human rights, and election monitoring.
Russia's hoped for membership in the World Trade Organization requires significant improvement in the country's promotion of transparency, fair competition and rule of law.
"The fate of Russian democracy has enormous implications, both for the former Soviet region and globally," said Ms. Windsor. "The fact that democracy has failed in so many countries of the former Soviet Union is due in part to the increasingly authoritarian Russian example and to President Putin's support for neighboring autocrats. Globally, Russia plays an important role in the war on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, North Korea, and elsewhere," she said. "But that role will be suspect in an environment where media freedom is smothered and democratic checks and balances are nonexistent."
Freedom House also called for a detailed review of current U.S. government democracy assistance strategies, recommending that such assistance be dramatically increased and redirected to the areas most critical to ensuring that the 2008 elections provide a genuine opportunity to move Russia in a democratic direction.
The latest Freedom House reports detail:
The concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a corrupt elite that puts personal gain above the public good.
The elimination of genuine political competition in the country's electoral processes.
The creation of an atmosphere of fear in which the media and civil society risk reprisals for independent actions and unsanctioned attitudes.
The entrenchment of a judicial and law enforcement system that is rife with political manipulation and corruption.
The stifling of entrepreneurialism and foreign investment in the face of weak enforcement of contracts and property rights.
The failure to achieve a political resolution to the war in Chechnya and the resulting escalation of terrorism and extremism.
Michael McFaul is the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of political science at Stanford University. Robert Orttung is an associate research professor at the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center of American University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Security Studies of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Freedom House's latest reports on Russia are available online:
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.