Russia | Freedom House

Countries at the Crossroads



Countries at the Crossroads 2007

2007 Scores

Accountability and Public Voice
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Civil Liberties
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Rule of Law
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Anti-Corruption and Transparency
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Russia’s movement toward democracy and the rule of law has been halting at best since the heady days of the collapse of communism in December 1991. Although Russia has maintained many of the formal institutions of democratic governance through the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the quality of its democracy has fluctuated greatly. Indeed, by 2005, having endured significant rollbacks of electoral rights, Russia could no longer be considered a democracy at all according to most metrics. The country has come to resemble the autocratic regimes of Central Asia more than the consolidated democracies of Eastern Europe that have recently joined the European Union.

Although the constitution forged in 1993 by Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris N. Yeltsin, has survived as the blueprint of Russian politics, the political system under Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, President Vladimir V. Putin, has become ever-more dominated by the executive branch, at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. The nascent political party system of the 1990s has been replaced by a set of political organizations loyal primarily to the president and largely dependent on him for their existence. Over the past few years, with the demise of parties on both the right and the left, a functioning political opposition has ceased to exist in Russia. Democracy has been curtailed further by the state’s gradual takeover of independent media. Finally, in the past two years in particular, civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been stifled through legislation that imposes onerous re-registration requirements. A few of these organizations have been unceremoniously raided and closed by the authorities, while human rights and democracy groups have been accused of pushing an agenda that benefits foreign states. More generally, civil society finds itself increasingly unable to serve as an effective check on abusive state practices at a time when the hollowing out of political opposition has increased the importance of external monitoring.

Notwithstanding these rather dramatic leaps off the democratic path that the country had appeared to be following in the early 1990s, Russia remains undeniably freer than it was during the Soviet period. Russian citizens are not tightly controlled by the state in every aspect of their lives as they were under communism. At the same time, they are not free to express their opinions about political leaders, to assemble freely, or to read whatever they like in the Russian press. Despite formal constitutional guarantees, in Russia today there are informal but firm guidelines regarding what sorts of protest speech and organizations are permitted or prohibited by the state.

Russia is certainly not reverting to communism, a specific political and economic system based largely on fear and bureaucratic fiat. Nonetheless, there has been a steady erosion of the content, if not the formal institutions, of Russian democracy. President Putin has accomplished this in part by increasing the importance of the security apparatus in governing the country. Particularly notable has been a shift in emphasis from the impartial rule of law to a preferential rule by law, aimed at rewarding government supporters and punishing those perceived to be threats or enemies of the regime.

Russia is even less democratic in 2007 than in 2005. Power is increasingly concentrated in the presidency, and the human and legal rights of Russian citizens are less secure than they have been at any point since 1991. Political pluralism and press freedom have been similarly afflicted. The still-unsolved October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter known for her pioneering coverage of the Chechen conflict, underscored the fragility of independent journalism in contemporary Russia.

Perhaps because his administration tightly monitors the media, President Putin remains hugely popular, though many of his policies are not. His attempt to reduce subsidies to pensioners in January 2005 sparked a series of demonstrations, the war in Chechnya continues to be of concern to the Russian public, and various civil society groups have protested their circumscribed rights. Still, none of this has made up for the lack of a meaningful political opposition.

In 2008, Putin’s second term as Russia’s president will expire. The constitution requires that he leave office, and he has stated on several occasions that he intends to do so. However, it is clear that Russian voters will not be given a completely free hand to choose the next president from an open field of candidates. The selection of Putin’s possible successors is being tightly choreographed by the Kremlin, and the lingering uncertainty as to whether elections will even be permitted indicates that the future of Russian democracy is in serious jeopardy.

Accountability and Public Voice: 

Just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initiated competitive and semicompetitive elections. Under the Soviet system, participation in elections was mandatory, leading to traditionally high voter turnouts. However, there was no choice between candidates, all of whom were members of the Communist Party.

Since 1993, elections at the national level have occurred regularly and in accordance with electoral laws. Registration requirements for candidates have fluctuated, and officials at the regional and national levels have used the rules to prohibit candidates who are unpalatable to the Kremlin and local business leaders. Nonetheless, the basic rules of elections are known and published, and campaigns are often, but not always, competitive. Incumbents who control the media and access to campaign financing from private business groups have a clear advantage. The increased control of the media by the Kremlin has reduced the competitiveness of elections at the national level.

Since Putin’s ascent to power—as prime minister in August 1999, acting president in January 2000, and president in March 2000—elections at the regional and national levels have become more managed by the presidential administration. The Kremlin’s dominance over the electoral process at the national level began in 1999 with the parliamentary victory of Unity, now known as United Russia. Putin does not claim a formal membership in any political party, but on United Russia’s official website, Putin is featured as the “moral leader” of the party.[2] United Russia dominated parliamentary elections in 2003, winning 37 percent of the popular vote.

In the March 2004 presidential election, Putin won a second term with slightly more than 70 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, the Communist-backed Nikolai Kharitonov, garnered 13.7 percent. While there was some suspicion that voter rolls had been cut to inflate turnout (the required minimum turnout was 50 percent), and irregularities were reported in several regions, there was little doubt that Putin had been the voters’ first choice. The election results were confirmed by the Central Electoral Commission.[3]

The federal Law on Political Parties originally came into effect on July 14, 2001. However, it has been revised and tightened in the past two years, making it more difficult for political organizations to register as parties. The law required each political party to demonstrate by January 2006 that it had at least 50,000 citizens as members and branches with at least 500 members each in more than 45 of Russia’s regions.[4] As of February 2007, 17 parties have confirmed participation in the December 2007 elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament; however, this number may rise by the time a review of registration is completed later in the year.[5]

Although multiple parties are permitted to run, the field has narrowed ahead of the 2007 elections. This is partly a natural process of attrition and consolidation of what had been a very broad spectrum of parties in the 1990s. However, it is also due to administrative and legal obstacles that prevent a truly competitive electoral system. For instance, over the past two years, candidates in local elections have been denied registration on questionable grounds, including accusations that they falsified signatures or improperly filed the necessary paperwork. In March 2007, the opposition party Yabloko was barred from St. Petersburg’s municipal elections after the local electoral commission ruled that over 10 percent of its signatures were invalid.

Moreover, in advance of the Duma elections, the minimum threshold for parties to gain representation has been increased from 5 percent of the vote to 7 percent. This step is likely to eliminate small, liberal opposition parties, including Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which drew close to 5 percent in the last Duma elections in 2003. Furthermore, in 2007 the Duma will be elected exclusively according to party lists in a proportional-representation system, ending the previous mixed system and its bloc of single-mandate seats. While this is not necessarily a less democratic method of electing representatives to parliament, in the current context the new system will only further entrench the status quo or enhance the standing of United Russia.

In December 2006, President Putin signed a law amending electoral rights. It enlarged the list of citizens ineligible to participate in elections to include those sentenced to prison terms for serious crimes and for crimes of an “extremist” nature; those imprisoned for public display of Nazi symbols; and those convicted of “extremist acts” against a state, regional, or local body of power. Given that these acts are not clearly defined, there is understandable concern that a broad interpretation could seriously imperil electoral rights in the future.

The new electoral law included restrictions on political parties’ use of television airtime to campaign against opponents. It also eliminated the minimum turnout requirement for elections at the national, local, and regional levels, allowing even elections with scant voter participation to be accepted as valid.

The upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, serves as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin and a compliant Duma. Its members are selected by regional executives and legislatures, and many are patronage appointments who may have never visited the regions they ostensibly represent. The Federation Council is one more way for informal networks to help allies gain power. Although elected officials in theory control the Russian state, current and former members of the security services have assumed a growing role in government under Putin, who had himself been an officer in both the Soviet-era KGB and the Federal Security Service (FSB), its main domestic successor.

In January 2006, Putin signed a controversial law designed to bring foreign and domestic NGOs under tighter state control. He defended the law as a necessary step to prevent foreign interference in Russian politics. Critics said the law was designed to limit the previously vibrant civil society that had arisen after the Soviet collapse.

The law required all groups to reregister with the justice ministry by mid-October 2006 and file an annual “work plan” beginning in 2007. Many groups failed to meet the first deadline due to the relatively onerous registration process. As a result, they were forced to close until they were able to supply the necessary documentation. Some ceased to function completely in Russia. Notable among the roughly 90 international organizations forced to close their doors at least temporarily were Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and Internews.

Most of these groups eventually reregistered, but virtually all reported the process to be cumbersome, and most expect further bureaucratic interference associated with new obligations to report regularly on daily activities and funding. The concern is that the law will give the Russian government unprecedented authority to regulate NGO operations and decide which projects are acceptable. The true test of the law’s effect on NGOs will come in the spring and summer of 2007, when reports on the groups’ activities are due.

The media remain tightly controlled by the presidential administration, and over the last seven years Russia has been one of the three most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist (behind Iraq and Colombia). Since Putin assumed office in 2000, 13 journalists have been killed in contract-style murders. There have been no convictions in any of the cases.[6] The murder of 48-year-old Anna Politkovskaya in her apartment building on October 7, 2006, refocused national and international attention on the problem.

Politkovskaya was a special correspondent for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. For seven years she had fought to bring the story of the Chechen conflict to light despite the dangers involved and the irritation it caused among Russian military and political officials. Politkovskaya had been threatened and detained for writing stories about human rights abuses against Chechen civilians by the Russian military and Chechen forces.

Days after her murder, Putin described Politkovskaya as an “insignificant” figure and dismissed the notion that there was any official involvement in her killing. (At the time of writing, there is no clear evidence that the state was involved.) However, the poisoning approximately one month later of former Russian spy Aleksandr Litvinenko in London fueled theories that the Kremlin had begun to systematically murder critics at home and abroad. Litvinenko had been a critic of the Putin administration and had allegedly begun to investigate Politkovskaya’s murder when he was evidently poisoned with polonium 210, a radioactive substance used as, among other things, an initiator for nuclear weapons. Through painstaking investigation in London and Moscow, British authorities uncovered a trail of the substance leading from the restaurant where Litvinenko ate his last meal. Before dying in a London hospital in November 2006, Litvinenko himself accused Russian authorities of orchestrating his poisoning. Putin has denied this charge. The investigation into how polonium 210 was smuggled across Europe to London and then slipped into Litvinenko’s meal is still under way at the time of writing. Although it remains unclear whether the Russian state is culpable, Litvinenko’s unusual death has apparently buttressed a popular impression that the Kremlin is capable of, and amenable to, eliminating its critics one way or another (see the discussion of Mikhail Khodorkovsky below).

Other media developments in recent years have also been troubling. In 2006, in advance of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, the Duma passed a bill, later signed by Putin, that broadened the definition of extremism to include criticism of public officials in the media. Several reporters have been charged under this new law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, including Dmitry Tashlykov of the regional paper Vladimirsky Krai, who allegedly defamed the governor of the Vladimirov region in an internet chat room.[7]

The Russian government and Kremlin-allied businessmen have steadily consolidated their control of Russian print and television outlets over the past several years. This trend continued with business magnate Alisher Usmanov’s purchase of the newspaper Kommersant in the fall of 2006. He assured Kommersant journalists that he would not interfere with the paper’s sometimes critical editorial line, but the acquisition is generally seen as part of an effort to silence possible critics in the run-up to the 2007 Duma elections and 2008 presidential election. Indeed, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index for 2005 noted a steady decrease in freedom of the press since 2001. There is also a lack of fairness in the issuing of broadcast licenses, a process overseen by the culture ministry, such that competitive licensing bids depend on loyalty to particular officials or groups. There is little transparency in broadcasting regulation, although politics clearly plays a role, as evidenced by the recent decision to effectively prohibit local rebroadcasting of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Russia.[8]

Civil Liberties: 

Russia’s human rights record, particularly with respect to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, is grim. Although the law prohibits torture or inhumane treatment of prisoners, ill-treatment of detainees by police is not uncommon. When it occurs, abuse generally comes in the first few hours after arrest and includes beating with fists or batons, electric shocks, and denial of access to medical help. Reports of brutal beatings, rape of male and female prisoners in Chechen detention centers, and detention without trial are widespread, especially in cases of suspected collaboration with Chechen rebels.[9]

Russian NGOs recorded 114 cases of torture by police in 11 regions of Russia between 2001 and 2005, not including the North Caucasus and the detention facilities near Chechnya.[10] There is little systematic evidence, but disciplinary action against police for such behavior appears to be rare. In November 2006, Amnesty International reported that poorly trained and low-paid police officers routinely use forced confessions—obtained without an attorney present—to “solve” crimes.[11] Confessions obtained in this way become the basis for criminal charges and convictions.

Russia’s imprisonment rate is among the highest in the world, with 670 prisoners per 100,000 residents.[12] Prison conditions are notoriously poor, and common health risks include HIV, tuberculosis, and other deadly diseases. Sanitary conditions are negatively affected by erratic water supplies and lack of hot water;[13] many pretrial detention centers do not have flush toilets, and detainees are forced to use buckets instead.[14] Overcrowding is common, and drug addiction among inmates has soared since 2000.

Police, on occasion, fail to keep accurate detention records, allowing suspects to remain in detention beyond the legal limit of 48 hours without seeing a judge. Moreover, the threat of torture deters detainees from reporting the excessive time in jail.[15]

Crime is a persistent problem in post-Soviet Russia. According to the country’s statistics agency (Roskomstat), crime has increased steadily since 1990, jumping rather dramatically from 2004 onward. Murder rates have remained relatively steady at over 30,000 per year since the mid-1990s, while robbery and drug smuggling have been particular areas of growth. The number of incidents classified as “terrorism” has increased since 2000, with spikes occurring in 2002 and 2003.[16] Individual security in Russia today, therefore, is in serious question. This is particularly true of women and children, for whom sex trafficking into Asia and Central and Eastern Europe is a severe problem.[17] In 2004 it was alleged that 92 percent of all Russian women who leave to work abroad end up forced to work in the sex industry.[18]

The Russian military is notorious for hazing recruits and mistreating servicemen. One well-known case took place in December 2005 at the Chelyabinsk Tank Academy, where 19-year-old private Andrei Sychyov and several other conscripts were forced by more senior soldiers to squat for several hours while being brutally beaten. After four days without treatment, Sychyov developed an infection that resulted in the amputation of his legs and genitals. Had military doctors not covertly reported Sychyov’s condition to the civic organization the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, the incident might well have gone unnoticed by senior army officials and the media. The Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers estimates that 80 percent of hazing incidents go unreported in the Russian military.[19] Moreover, several cases of soldiers being forced into male prostitution by senior officers surfaced in March 2007.[20]

Gender equity is a continued challenge in contemporary Russian society, and not enough is done to ameliorate the effects of gender imbalances in the political sphere in particular. Women are generally absent at high levels of executive authority; the only woman ever to be a governor is Putin ally Valentina Matvienko of St. Petersburg. Representation by women in the State Duma had decreased from 13.5 percent in 1993 to 9.8 percent by 2003. Female candidates in Russia have generally performed better under single-mandate voting than proportional representation, in part because political parties tend to place women’s names lower on their lists. The elimination of single-mandate constituencies for the 2007 Duma elections is likely to depress female representation even further.

The Russian constitution declares not only equality of gender before the law but also equality of religion and freedom of conscience, religious worship, and practice (Article 28). Notwithstanding these guarantees, the Orthodox Church of Russia has sought to assert and maintain its dominance in the face of challenges from foreign missionary organizations. A controversial law passed in 1997 asserted that only Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism had full legal standing. Other religious groups were required to demonstrate that they had been registered to operate in the Soviet Union and then Russia for at least 15 years. Without legal status, religious organizations are unable to open bank accounts or own property, among other activities.

A number of religious groups have experienced bias and harassment in recent years. These include Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Scientology, and Seventh-Day Adventists.[21] Anti-Semitism remains a serious problem, although President Putin has publicly pronounced that discrimination against Jews is intolerable, and prosecution for hate crimes has apparently increased. Attacks against Jews are currently outnumbered by attacks against migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia—Chechnya and Georgia especially. Still, in 2005 and 2006 a number of violent attacks against Jews, Jewish monuments, and synagogues occurred in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major cities in Russia.[22]

Conditions for ethnic minorities have worsened in the past several years. In part this is a result of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya and terrorist attacks by Chechen and other Muslim rebels elsewhere in Russia. Poor relations between Russia and Georgia have also meant increased stops on the streets for anyone who does not have classically Slavic looks. Perhaps most startling, though, is the introduction of a new state regulation forbidding certain categories of shops and markets from hiring foreigners after April 1, 2007. The law is intended to crack down on the approximately 10 million illegal migrants who come from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and China to work in Russia. It also smacks of a racist form of Russian nationalism.

Freedom of assembly has become increasingly circumscribed in recent years. Licenses and permits for rallies are growing more difficult to obtain in major cities. Nonetheless, a few political rallies and meetings have taken place with the specific aim of challenging the political leadership. Perhaps the most notable were January 2005 protests by Russian pensioners against the new law that stripped disabled citizens, pensioners, and war veterans of benefits such as free public transportation and medications, replacing them with cash sums instead. In St. Petersburg, more than 10,000 people protested, with some even calling for Putin to resign.[23] Other demonstrations took place across Russia, in the Siberian regions, and as far east as Sakhalin Island. In some regions, the protests were actually effective, prompting local politicians to repeal, or at least delay, some of the benefit reforms.

On March 3, 2007, an umbrella group of organizations and civic activists known as the Other Russia staged a political rally on the streets of St. Petersburg, with several thousand demonstrators protesting the infringement of civil and political rights in Russia.[24] Although they were formally denied permission to demonstrate and were initially blocked from the city center, the crowd broke through police barriers and marched down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main artery. A similar rally in December 2006 in Moscow was less successful, as about 4,000 riot police blocked 2,000 protesters from marching into the center of the city.

The transition from the Communist system to a market economy in the 1990s brought about a sharp decline in living standards for Russian workers. Discredited Soviet-era trade unions were not well equipped or inclined to provide relief or support in the face of the dramatic decreases in the value of wages that followed the end of price controls in 1992 and the wave of privatizations later in the decade. More recently, however, there have been reports of an increase in unionization, particularly in the automobile and oil industries, with new unions forming spontaneously to demand better pay for workers.[25]

Rule of Law: 

There is a noticeable gap in Russia between the existence of laws on paper and their implementation in practice, creating uncertainty about the rule of law. Laws are often applied inconsistently to suit exigent circumstances or political purposes.

By the letter of the constitution the judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches of government, but in practice members of government, wealthy individuals, and powerful businesses interfere in judicial decisions. Judges often report feeling pressured by federal authorities.[26]

Trial by jury was introduced experimentally in 1994 in several regions in Russia. In November 2001, the Duma passed a criminal procedure code extending the right to a jury trial in cases involving crimes that carry a minimum sentence of 10 years, effective in January 2003. Although the number of jury trials has increased in recent years, juries currently adjudicate only 8 percent of all criminal cases. The conviction rate in jury trials (81 percent) is notably lower than in non-jury trials (99 percent),[27] perhaps due to a higher standard of evidence required by juries. Some analysts also cite the legacy of Soviet oppression, which might lead jurors to side with defendants.[28]

The Russian Supreme Court has expressed concern over the gap between jury and non-jury acquittal rates, questioning whether members of the public are capable of serving on juries and arriving at reasonable decisions. Annual statistics provided by the court indicate that acquittals are appealed more often than convictions, and that the Supreme Court overturns a much higher percentage of acquittals than convictions.[29] As double jeopardy is not prohibited, in a few cases prosecutors have obtained a guilty verdict after two or even three jury acquittals.[30] In 2005, 14.5 percent of appealed guilty verdicts were overturned by the Cassation Chamber of the Russian Supreme Court, while 49 percent of acquittals were overturned and sent back to the appropriate court for retrial.[31] This high rate of reversed jury acquittals is likely to undermine the availability or usefulness of jury trials in the future.

The quality and impartiality of judges in Russia is uneven. Some help prosecutors present evidence or remind them of evidence they may be omitting at trial.[32] At times, judges overlook procedural violations or allow evidence that is technically not permissible.[33] Moreover, sentencing for cases of similar nature is inconsistent. In 2004, in an effort to combat judicial corruption, the Russian government raised judicial salaries markedly, but this has not eradicated bribery. Corruption is greater at the trial court level, where only one judge presides, than at the appellate level, which involves panels of several judges.

The prosecutor general is appointed by the president of Russia. Prosecutors at all levels are generally closely monitored by officials in the executive branch, who do not hesitate to interfere in prosecutions for political or business purposes. Executive accountability for decisions on judicial and prosecutorial dismissals and appointments is low. For example, Putin dismissed Russia’s long-serving chief prosecutor in 2006 with essentially no explanation. There was widespread speculation that it was part of a Kremlin shake-up in advance of the 2008 presidential election, but since the executive is essentially free from public, legislative, or media scrutiny, analysts were left in the dark as to why this change occurred.

Security forces have maintained their privileged position in the Russian system under Putin, in part due to his background as a KGB officer in the Soviet period. He has appointed many of his former colleagues to positions of influence in the Russian government. It is estimated that of the 1,000 leading political figures in Russia, 78 percent have worked with the KGB or FSB.[34] As a result, law enforcement has become more centralized under the control of authorities in Moscow.[35]

The right to private property is protected under Article 35 of the constitution, but the enforcement of contracts and property rights remains uneven. This is one of the key obstacles to increased foreign investment in Russia outside the oil and gas industry, where most foreign investment is concentrated.

The International Property Rights Index, a composite measure comparing relative property rights among 70 countries, assigns Russia a score of 3.2 out of the best possible 10. In particular, Russia scores poorly on judicial independence, physical property rights protection, and intellectual property rights protection. Russia’s cumulative scores on the index put it near the bottom of world rankings, at 63 out of 70.[36]

Although the index is a snapshot of Russian property rights relative to a limited group of countries, it is illustrative of a lack of confidence on the part of investors and businesspeople in the safety of property rights in Russia. The government’s criminal prosecution of politically active billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and its parallel campaign against his now-defunct oil firm, OAO Yukos, have undoubtedly contributed to the perception of Russia as an unstable business environment. In the wake of the Yukos case, major foreign companies have come under pressure to give up controlling stakes in oil and gas projects to state-owned firms, threatening a key source of outside investment.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 

Since assuming the presidency in 2000, Putin has repeatedly declared his intention to bring corruption to heel. However, progress in this regard has been minimal. In fact, Russia’s corruption score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index worsened from 2.7 in 2004 to 2.5 in 2006.[37]

Business regulations in Russia remain complicated and amorphous. Typical bureaucratic hurdles in opening a business include a cumbersome licensing process, arbitrary inspections, and unpredictable tax collection. Registration requirements and excessive documentation rules in general are also frequently noted as problems by new firms in Russia. Bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption are consistently cited by foreign and domestic investors as one of the “principal obstacles to investment in Russia today.”[38] There is also little uniformity in doing business across the country’s many regions. Officials at the regional and city level exercise wide discretion in assessing licensing and registration fees and determining when to conduct inspections. Aside from bribing government officials and politicians, businesspeople report having to pay protection money to organized criminal groups. Given that there is no national procurement system, it is also typical to pay bribes to obtain government contracts, according to another World Bank study.[39] As a result, Russia has attracted little foreign direct investment (FDI) relative to its economic potential. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that FDI in Russia in 2005 was 3 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 4.9 percent in Poland.[40]

The OECD confirms that the Russian state is expanding its role in the economy, particularly in “strategic” sectors like oil and gas.[41] This began in earnest in 2004 with the seizure of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company Yukos and the Kremlin-orchestrated transfer of its assets to a state-owned firm. Khodorkovsky and his colleague Platon Lebedev were arrested in 2003 on charges of tax evasion. After an 11-month trial in 2004 and 2005, both men were found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison. Meanwhile, virtually all of Yukos’s key assets were sold in dubious state-sponsored auctions to pay off huge tax assessments. Khodorkovsky is widely believed to have been targeted because of his resistance to Kremlin control and possible presidential ambitions.

The OECD notes that in Russia, “the expansion of state ownership in important sectors will probably contribute to more rent-seeking, less efficiency and slower growth.”[42] State auditing and inspection bodies are used selectively and for political purposes. Recent examples include the investigation of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an opposition figure and possible contender for the presidency in 2008. Kasyanov was placed under federal investigation in 2005 for alleged fraud related to a property purchase he made in 2004 while still in office. As in the Khodorkovsky case, the target of the probe may well have broken the law, but he appears to have been singled out for political reasons while those in better standing with the Kremlin go unpunished.

Tax collection in Russia has greatly improved since the introduction of a flat personal income-tax rate early in Putin’s first presidential term, but tax laws are still complicated, and there is a pervasive culture of tax evasion. Corporations are pursued for tax arrears inconsistently and sometimes for political purposes.

Russia has no meaningful conflict-of-interest laws; many senior officials in the president’s administration serve on the boards of the country’s major oil and gas firms. The high price of oil on world markets in recent years has created ever-greater incentives for the state to involve itself in this crucial sector of the economy. Finally, as Russia’s laws on disclosure of the assets and incomes of state officials are underdeveloped, there is little to stop elected and appointed officials from exploiting their positions for personal gain.

Bribery continues to be a concern in higher education. Admission to postsecondary institutions can often be obtained with a bribe to the right official. Cases of typically low-paid professors being convicted of taking bribes in exchange for higher grades have come to light in Moscow and other big cities. In an effort to curb corruption in education, in February 2007 the Duma moved to introduce a standardized testing system for Russian students in their final years of high school. In initial testing in selected regions of Russia, however, unusually high scores were reported, and officials suspected cheating. Ironically, the head of the Federal Test Center, the organization tasked with grading exams and test papers, was suspended following allegations of corruption and fraud involving misuse of test-center funds. The prosecutor general has opened a criminal investigation.[43]

In general, reporting instances of official corruption is a risky endeavor. A 2006 report on whistleblowing noted that since 1998, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, had received 28,000 complaints from Russia. Most apparently concerned abuse of power and corruption by police and judicial officials. The number of complaints from Russia is reportedly higher than from any other member state of the Council of Europe, suggesting in part that victims are unable to obtain justice within the Russian system. Of the total, the court has ruled on 106 and found the Russian state guilty in 90, or about 85 percent of the cases. Reports of intimidation aimed at complainants abound.[44] At the time of writing, Russian whistleblowers are not formally protected by law, so their fates depend on individual circumstances, including the mercy of employers against whom they may be complaining and the interest and activity of international and domestic NGOs intervening on their behalf.[45] In the wake of Putin’s attacks against the free operation of NGOs in Russia, however, these groups represent an increasingly weak source of protection for those choosing to make formal complaints against an arm of the state.

  • The vote threshold for parties to gain representation in the State Duma should be lowered back to 5 percent to allow for the entry of smaller parties and a broader political discourse.
  • The government should repeal the January 2006 NGO law so that NGOs receiving foreign funding can operate without fear of arbitrary closure. NGOs should be permitted to operate freely and without close monitoring by the justice ministry.
  • The government should devote greater resources and more consistent effort to fully investigating violence against journalists and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
  • The culture ministry should award broadcasting licenses through a truly competitive and transparent process.
  • Senior government officials should be required to report their personal and professional ties to private and state companies. Enforceable conflict-of-interest laws should be introduced to ensure greater transparency in both business and political life.
  • Business regulations and licensing needs to be simplified and streamlined in order to reduce opportunities for bribery.
  • Anticorruption NGOs must be granted greater access to government procedures and information. Freedom of information regulations should be enforced.
  • The parliament should provide, and the courts should uphold, formal legal protections for those reporting corruption, environmental damage, or human rights abuses.
  • Immediate steps should be undertaken to guarantee judicial independence, including stricter penalties for attempting to influence judges’ decisions.
  • Greater resources need to be invested in the training of judges, especially regarding proper court procedures.
  • The state should introduce the principle of double jeopardy in criminal proceedings to protect against spurious and repetitive prosecutions.
  • Additional mechanisms need to be developed to ensure equitable and just enforcement of property rights, particularly with respect to arbitrary property seizures.
  • The government should create a special, independent task force to investigate reports of abuse in the military. Senior officials who fail to report abuse need to be held accountable.
  • The guarantees of freedom of assembly in the constitution should be evenly applied and upheld. The state should ease the process of obtaining permits and licenses for public demonstrations.
  • Russian police and detention facilities should be more closely monitored by the public prosecutor’s office, and accusations of prisoner abuse should be fully investigated and prosecuted where appropriate so that the human rights of inmates are protected.
  • The government should invest greater resources in police training, particularly focusing on the rights of suspects and detainees.

The author is grateful to Micah Cratty and Karina Qian for research assistance.

[2] See Edinii Rossii Ofitsialnii Sait Partii at

[3] Robert Coalson, “Tsik Moves to Cut Off Discussion of the Presidential Election,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), April 8, 2004.

[4] Federal Law No. 175-FZ, “On the Election of Deputies of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation” (December 11, 2002).

[5] “Amendments to Elections Legislation” (Vienna: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, December 2006),

[6] For the ranking of Russia as third most dangerous for journalists after Iraq and Colombia, as well as the number of journalists murdered since 2000, see Committee to Protect Journalists, “Attacks on the Press in 2006, Europe and Central Asia: Russia,”

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Russian Journalist on Trial for Defaming Local Governor in Internet Chat Room,” news release, February 23, 2007,

[8]Russian Media Sustainability Index (Washington, D.C.: International Research and Exchanges Board [IREX], 2005).

[9] See Human Rights Watch at for documentation of this phenomenon from 1999 to 2006.

[10]Russian NGO Shadow Report on the Observance of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by the Russian Federation for the Period from 2001 to 2005 (Moscow: UN, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 2006), See also Claire Bigg, “Russia: Law Enforcement Organs Accused of Widespread Torture,” RFE/RL, March 29, 2007,

[11] Amnesty International (AI), “Russian Federation: Beating Out ‘Confessions’ in Police Detention,” news release, November 22, 2006,; AI, Russian Federation: Torture and Forced ‘Confessions’ in Detention (London: AI, November 22, 2006),

[12] Alexey Bobrik, Kirill Danishevski, Ksenia Eroshina, and Martin McKee, “Prison Health in Russia: The Larger Picture,” Journal of Public Health Policy 26, 1 (2005): 33.

[13] Ibid., 36.

[14] Ibid.. 41–42.

[15] AI, Russian Federation: Torture and Forced ‘Confessions’ in Detention.

[16] All of the statistics in this paragraph come from “10.1 Chislo Zaregistrirovannikh Prestuplenii po Vidam (1990–2005)” available through the Federal’naya Sluzhba Gosudarstvennoi Statistiki at

[17] “Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery: Russian Federation 2006” at

[18] Anastasia Lebedev, “Russia’s Willing Sex Workers Find Enslavement Abroad,” Moscow News, April 22, 2004, article viewed at

[19] Claire Bigg, “Brutal Hazing Incident Rocks Army,” RFE/RL, January 27, 2006,

[20] Patrick Moore, “Rights Group Says Conscripts Forced into Prostitution,” RFE/RL, February 13, 2007,

[21] Oleg Liakhovich, “Religious Freedom in Russia: A Long and Winding Road,” Moscow News, March 25, 2005,

[22]Chronicle of Antisemitism in Ukraine and Russia: 2005–2006 (Washington, D.C.: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union [UCSJ], February 2, 2007),

[23] Valentinas Mite, “Russia: Pensioners’ Protests Mount Growing Challenge to Putin,” RFE/RL, January 17, 2005,

[24] Masha Lipman, “Breaking the Cordon,” Moscow Times, March 12, 2007, 10.

[25] Boris Kagarlitsky, “Rebirth of Unions in Russia,” Moscow Times, September 22, 2006.

26 International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, Striving for Judicial Independence: A Report into Proposed Changes to the Judiciary in Russia (London: International Bar Association, June 2005),

[27] Peter Finn, “Fear Rules in Russia’s Courtrooms: Judges Who Acquit Forced Off Bench,” Washington Post, February 27, 2005,

[28] Andrei Kolsenikov, “Is Russia Ready for Jury Trials?” RIA/Novosti, August 3, 2006,

[29] Kristi O’Malley, “Not Guilty Until the Supreme Court Finds You Guilty: A Reflection on Jury Trials in Russia,” Demokratizatsiya 14 (Winter 2006).

[30] Finn “Fear Rules in Russia’s Courtrooms.”

[31] O’Malley, “Not Guilty…,” 4.

[32] Noel C. Paul, “Rundown Jury: Twelve Not-So-Angry Russians,” Legal Affairs (July/August 2004),

[33] O’Malley, “Not Guilty…,” 3.

[34] See, for example, “Federal Security Service (FSB) History” at

[35] Brian D. Taylor, Power Surge? Russia’s Power Ministries from Yeltsin to Putin and Beyond (CSIS PONARS, Policy Memo No. 414, December 2006),

[36] International Property Rights Index (IPRI), Russia (Washington, D.C.: IPRI, 2007),

[37] Transparency International (TI), Corruption Perceptions Index (Berlin: TI, 2005, 2006),

[38] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Economic Survey of the Russian Federation, 2006, (Paris: OECD, November 2006), 7,

[39] World Bank, “Progress on Anti-Corruption Mixed in Russian Federation: Corruption Eased in Transition Countries, 2002–2005,” news release, July 26, 2006,

[40] OECD, “Russia Should Do More to Attract FDI Following Convertible Rouble Move, Says OECD,” news release, May 7, 2006,

[41] OECD, Economic Survey of the Russian Federation, 2006.

[42] Ibid., 6.

[43] Associated Press, “Russia Sets Out to Fight Corruption in Education with a New Standardized Test,” International Herald Tribune, February 2, 2007,

[44] These statistics and reports come from Anna Nemtsova, “Russia: A Phone Call to Putin, How do Kremlin Authorities Deal With Whistle-Blowers? Silence Them,” Newsweek International, March 13, 2006,

[45] Rashid Alimov, “Russian Nuke Whistleblower Files for Asylum in Finland,” Bellona Foundation, March 11, 2005,