Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Russia’s political rights rating changed from 4 to 5 due to reports of serious irregularities in the March presidential elections and President Putin’s increasing consolidation of central government authority.
After securing a decisive victory in the March presidential election, which was marred by widespread fraud, Vladimir Putin moved quickly to consolidate his power by taking steps to rein in the country’s regional governors, wealthy business elite, and independent media outlets. While Putin maintained that the efforts were necessary to eliminate corruption and ensure economic and political stability, critics charged that his increasingly authoritarian tactics were stifling dissent and undermining the country’s nascent democratic institutions. Despite the ongoing war in Chechnya and a series of military and security crises, the president continued to enjoy widespread popular support throughout the year.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia reemerged as a separate, independent state under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected president in June of that year. Yeltsin was challenged by a hostile anti-reform legislature in 1992, as parliament replaced acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, a principal architect of reforms, with Viktor Chernomyrdin, a Soviet-era manager of the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. The following year, Yeltsin put down an attempted coup by hardliners in parliament, and a new constitution was approved creating a bicameral national legislature, the Federal Assembly. The December 1995 parliamentary elections, in which 43 parties competed, saw the victory of Communists and nationalist forces.
In the 1996 presidential elections, Yeltsin, who was openly supported by the country’s most influential media and business elites, easily defeated Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with 54 percent of the vote to 40 percent in a runoff in July. The signing of a peace agreement in August with authorities in the republic of Chechnya put an end to a nearly two-year war with the breakaway territory, in which Russia suffered a humiliating defeat and Chechnya’s formal economy and infrastructure were largely destroyed. However, a final decision on the region’s status was officially deferred until 2001.
In March 1998, Yeltsin dismissed Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and his entire government, citing the failure of economic reforms, and replaced him with the little-known Energy Minister Sergei Kiriyenko. As the country’s economic situation continued to worsen, the ruble collapsed in August, forcing a devaluation of the currency and precipitating the collapse of Russia’s financial markets. In response, Yeltsin fired Kiriyenko, who was replaced by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in September. The new government, which did not include any well-known reformers, signaled a return to greater spending and state control.
An impending political crisis was averted in mid-1999, when Yeltsin survived an impeachment vote in parliament on May 15 over five charges, including starting the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. Four days later, the legislature approved a longtime Yeltsin ally, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, as the new prime minister to replace Primakov, who had been dismissed by Yeltsin on May 12. However, Yeltsin abruptly removed Stepashin on August 9 and replaced him with Federal Security Service head Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin, whose term would expire in 2000 and who was ineligible to run for a third term, indicated that Putin was his preferred successor in the presidential elections scheduled for the following year.
The previous conflict with Chechnya was reignited in 1999 after an invasion by Chechen guerillas into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in early August, and a subsequent string of deadly bombings in several Russian cities that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants. The Kremlin responded by initiating an air and ground invasion of the breakaway republic that drove tens of thousands of civilians from their homes and led to accusations of human rights violations committed by both the Russian military and Chechen fighters. However, the campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia, fueled by the media’s largely pro-government reporting. Putin’s public approval rating rose dramatically as the result of his close association with the Chechen war, where guerilla-style fighting continued at year’s end, and his reputation as a vigorous and disciplined leader in contrast to the ailing Yeltsin.
In the December 19 election for the 450-seat lower house of parliament (Duma), the Communist Party secured the largest number of votes, gaining 114 seats. The Unity bloc, a diverse grouping of political figures created by the Kremlin in September and endorsed by Putin, came in second with 73 seats. The seemingly powerful Fatherland-All Russia coalition, which united Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland group and the All Russia bloc of regional governors and was led by former Prime Minister Primakov, suffered a surprisingly poor showing with only 66 seats. Other parties that crossed the five percent threshold to enter parliament were the Union of Right Forces, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, with 29 seats; the reformist Yabloko, headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, with 20 seats; and the ultranationalist Zhirinovsky bloc, with 17 seats. The remaining seats were won by independent candidates or members of smaller parties.
While the Communists formed the single largest bloc, the results were widely regarded as an important victory for pro-government forces. The Unity bloc had appealed to voters on the basis of its image as a champion of the restoration of order and tough leadership, as embodied by Putin. In addition, Primakov saw his support decline in the face of both Putin’s rise in popularity and the success of relentless media attacks by the pro-Kremlin ORT television network.
In a surprise end-of-the-year move, President Yeltsin announced his resignation on December 31, turning over the reins of power to Putin. Many observers maintained that his sudden departure was linked to Putin’s signing of a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for Yeltsin, who recently had been at the center of several corruption scandals, as well as to his worsening health problems. His resignation served to move up the presidential poll by three months, from June to March 2000, dramatically shortening the election campaign period.
In a victory that had been widely anticipated, Putin secured 52.9 percent of the vote, more than the 50 percent required to avoid a second-round runoff. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov received 29.2 percent, followed by Yabloko Party head Grigory Yavlinsky with 5.8 percent, Keremovo governor Aman Tuleev with 3 percent, and the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with 2.7 percent. The remaining six candidates, including Samara governor Konstantin Titov and former Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, received less than 2 percent of the vote each. Overall voter turnout was 68.7 percent.
International election observers cited numerous and serious irregularities, including the use of some election commission staff to distribute campaign materials; ambiguities in legislation regarding financial disclosure requirements for candidates and their apparently arbitrary enforcement; the use of federal and regional government staff members to campaign for Putin; and biased media reporting of the campaign. According to a highly critical report by The Moscow Times that was compiled following a six-month investigation, Putin would have faced a second round runoff with Zyuganov if not for widespread fraud; the report did concede that Putin would most likely have won in the second round. The newspaper also pointed to instances of ballot box stuffing, the creation of “ghost” votes, and the burning of ballots supporting opposition candidates.
Among the various reasons cited for Putin’s victory were the shortened campaign period, which benefited the already popular Putin over his opponents; the continuing popularity of the war in Chechnya; Putin’s refusal to provide potentially controversial details of his political program; the earlier elimination from the race of former leading presidential hopefuls Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov; and positive portrayals of Putin by large media outlets controlled by the state and Kremlin supporters, particularly the ORT network. With Putin’s victory becoming an increasingly foregone conclusion during the campaign period, most political figures, including opponents of the Kremlin administration, began to pledge their support to his candidacy. Two months after the election, parliament overwhelmingly approved Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who had served as Russia’s chief foreign debt negotiator, as the new prime minister.
Shortly after taking office in March, Putin began challenging the long-standing political clout of the so-called oligarchs, members of the wealthy and powerful business elite, through a series of investigations and raids by tax officials. Among the targets were the auto giant AvtoVAZ, the energy company LUKOil, the electricity monopoly United Energy Systems, and the mining company Norilsk Nickel, as well as media magnates Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky. While Putin argued that his actions were part of a new anticorruption campaign, most analysts agreed that his efforts were an attempt to increase his own political power by limiting the influence of major business leaders over state policy.
In another bid to increase the central government’s authority, Putin moved to rein in the country’s often independent-minded 89 governors by pushing through legislation removing them from their positions in the upper house of parliament, allowing the president to suspend them for breaking federal laws, and adopting tax reforms that could reduce their economic power. He also created seven new “super regions” headed by Kremlin appointees, most of whom had backgrounds in the military or security services. Putin’s policy was seen in sharp contrast to that of Boris Yelstin, who had accorded considerable autonomy to many of Russia’s regions, which were often run as personal fiefdoms.
Despite early government promises of a rapid victory in Chechnya, the year 2000 ended with rebel forces engaging in various guerilla warfare tactics against Russian troops. Although Moscow captured the capital Grozny in February, the Russian military was unable to secure complete control over all of Chechnya’s territory. Sniper attacks, car bombs, and suicide missions led to almost daily reports of casualties, while reports of serious human rights violations committed mostly by Russian soldiers continued at year’s end.
Putin’s popularity also managed to withstand several disasters, all of which occurred in August. The country’s aging infrastructure and inadequate safety regulations were highlighted by a fire that destroyed Moscow’s Ostankino television tower. A bomb attack in a crowded Moscow underpass, which left 13 people dead, was a frightening reminder of the deadly apartment bombings in 1999. The sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk underscored the decay in the country’s once powerful navy and the urgent need for military reform. Putin’s slow and confused response to the tragedy, which had resulted in the deaths of all 118 sailors on board, led to some of the harshest public criticisms of the president during the year.
Relations with the United States became further strained in 2000, particularly over Washington’s plans to develop a new limited missile defense shield, which Moscow maintained would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In early December, former naval officer Edmond Pope became the first American in 40 years convicted by Russia of espionage. After being sentenced to the maximum of 20 years in prison, he was pardoned by Putin two weeks later on humanitarian grounds. At the same time, Moscow’s relations with former Soviet allies such as Cuba and North Korea appeared to warm throughout the year.
The country’s economy showed surprisingly strong signs of recovery, with growth estimated at some seven percent in 2000. Most of the increase was attributed to high world prices for one of Russia’s primary export earners, oil, rather than to promised economic reform programs, which went largely unfulfilled. While parliament adopted a sweeping new tax code during the summer designed to increase government revenues, Putin ignored reforms in other areas, including overhauling the banking system and protecting investor rights. With global oil prices beginning to decline by the end of the year, most analysts expressed concern over the sustainability of Russia’s economic growth into 2001.
While Russians can change their government democratically, the 2000 presidential vote was marred by serious examples of electoral fraud. The 1993 constitution established a strong president, who has the power to appoint, pending parliamentary confirmation, and dismiss the prime minister. The bicameral legislature consists of a 450-member lower chamber (Duma), in which half of the members are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the other half by party lists, and an upper chamber (Federation Council), composed of 178 regional leaders. Despite various irregularities, the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were deemed generally free and fair by international observers.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the government increased its pressure on media outlets and journalists critical of the Kremlin. In a case that attracted international condemnation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky was found guilty of violating Russian passport regulations while covering the war in Chechnya. Although he was fined several hundred dollars, the penalty was dropped under the terms of an amnesty program. Press freedom and human rights organizations protested his arrest and conviction, which they insisted was in retaliation for Babitsky’s objective reporting of the war.
During the last several years, Russia’s powerful businessmen acquired control of or funded many large media outlets, which in turn enjoyed connections to the Kremlin or other political figures. The country’s leading independent media empire, Media-MOST, and its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, became the target of tax raids and arrests on embezzlement charges in 2000 that President Putin claimed were part of his anticorruption campaign. While press freedom groups characterized the moves against Media-MOST as a politically motivated attempt to silence one of the few independent media groups critical of the Russian government and the war in Chechnya, the crackdown was also widely regarded as an effort to rein in one of the last oligarchs openly opposed to the current Kremlin.
Numerous journalists were harassed and assaulted during the year, including several who were killed, mostly for their reports exposing corruption. Igor Domnikov, a reporter with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was attacked in his apartment building in May and died after two months in a coma. Domnikov's colleagues maintain that the attack was an attempt to intimidate the staff of his paper, which specializes in investigative journalism. Other attacks against journalists with Novaya Gazeta included death threats made against reporter Oleg Sultanov, who had published articles on corruption in the country’s oil industry, and the severe beating in December of journalist Oleg Lurye, who had written articles on high-level government corruption. In July, Sergei Novikov, the director of the independent radio station Vesna, was shot and killed in what his colleagues believe was retaliation for the station’s numerous broadcasts on corruption in the Smolensk region. Vladivostok journalist Irina Grebneva was arrested and briefly imprisoned in July on politically motivated charges stemming from her exposes on local corruption.
Press freedom organizations expressed alarm at Press Minister Mikhail Lesin’s June announcement that he intended to enforce a law requiring that all print media be licensed, and at the September adoption of a doctrine on information security providing restrictions on the free flow of certain information. The military continued to impose severe restrictions on journalists’ access to the Chechen war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the government.
Freedom of religion is unevenly respected in this primarily Russian Orthodox country, with a controversial 1997 law on religion requiring churches to prove that they have existed for at least 15 years before being permitted to register. As registration is necessary for a religious group to conduct many of its activities, new, independent congregations are consequently restricted in their functions. Regional authorities often harass nontraditional groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons among the frequent targets.
The government generally respects freedom of assembly, and numerous political rallies and other demonstrations occurred throughout the year. The Communist Party, which claims more than 500,000 members countrywide, remains the best organized political force. Most other parties lack strong organization, are centered around specific personalities rather than policy issues, and were formed by political and business elites rather than at the grassroots level. The first ever conference for the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, which is still largely in its infancy, was held in October 2000 to provide ideas for increasing the role of NGOs in Russian society.
Although trade union rights are legally protected, in practice workers risk dismissal if they strike. The Federation of Independent Unions of Russia (FNPR), the successor to the Soviet-era organization, claims to represent 80 percent of all workers. As the dominant trade union movement enjoying often close affiliation with local political structures, the FNPR effectively places a constraint on the right to freedom of association. Approximately eight percent of union members belong to independent unions. In November 2000, more than 30,000 teachers in the Far East went on strike over nearly $6 million in wage arrears. A government-proposed new labor code, which was under discussion at year’s end, is opposed by labor leaders, who maintain that the law would diminish the power of trade unions and make it easier for employers to dismiss workers.
The judiciary is not fully independent and is subject to political interference, corruption, inadequate funding, and a lack of qualified personnel. In April, parliament dismissed Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov, who had investigated former President Yeltsin for corruption. The decision put an end to the more than one year political feud between Skuratov and Yeltsin, who had unsuccessfully attempted to fire Skuratov on three separate occasions the previous year. According to Human Rights Watch, police routinely use torture against detainees to extract confessions, but are rarely prosecuted for committing such abuses. Russia’s prison system suffers from severe overcrowding, inadequate food and medical care, and widespread disease among inmates. Pretrial detention centers house more than 300,000 suspects, many of whom are held for several years in squalid conditions. A draft penal code passed two parliamentary readings by the end of 2000 and is expected to be adopted during its third and final reading in early 2001. The law would reduce overcrowding in Russia’s prisons by limiting pretrial detentions to one year, implementing bail for minor crimes, and expanding the probation system.
In April 2000, the supreme court upheld a December 1999 St. Petersburg court acquittal of former navy captain Alexander Nikitin of espionage and disclosing state secrets. In September, the presidium of the supreme court dismissed the prosecution’s appeal, effectively putting an end to the case. Nikitin had been arrested in 1996 after preparing a report for a Norwegian environmental group documenting radioactive pollution caused by Russia’s nuclear submarines. In November 2000, the supreme court ordered a new trial for navy journalist Grigory Pasko, who had been acquitted of treason in 1999 for his reports on the navy’s nuclear waste dumping practices; no trial date was set at year’s end.
Corruption throughout the government and business world is pervasive, with members of the old Soviet Communist elite having used insider information and extrajudicial means to obtain control of key industrial and business sectors. Consequently, widespread corruption remains a serious obstacle to the creation of an effective market economy and an impediment to genuine equality of opportunity. More than two years after the case was first opened, prosecutors announced in December that lack of evidence had led them to close their investigation into allegations that a Swiss firm received kickbacks to renovate the Kremlin because of lack of evidence.
In accordance with an earlier constitutional court ruling that propiskas, or residence permits, violate the constitution, a Moscow city court ruled in December that several provisions of Moscow’s propiska system were illegal, including limiting visitor registrations to six months, rejecting children from schools if their parents are not registered, and refusing registration to visitors living in an apartment with less than 12 square meters per person. According to human rights organizations, which welcomed the decision, the propiska rules had forced thousands of people to live illegally in Moscow and led to police harassment and problems finding employment.
Women are underrepresented in government and in management positions in the business world. Domestic violence remains a serious problem, with law enforcement authorities offering little protection or assistance.