Freedom in the World
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The executive branch maintained its tight controls on the media, civil society, and the other branches of government in 2010. The removal of longtime Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov in September and stage-managed local elections in April and October demonstrated the supremacy of the federal elite. Similarly, the extension of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s prison term in December, following a politicized trial based on contradictory new charges, confirmed the political leadership’s control over the justice system. In the latest prominent example of violence against critical journalists, Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin was brutally beaten in November. Insurgent and other violence originating in the North Caucasus continued during the year, with high-profile attacks on the Moscow subway and the Chechen parliament. Despite these harsh conditions, civil society found a stronger voice during the year, with large antigovernment protests in Kaliningrad and popular efforts to protect environmental assets and combat an outbreak of summer wildfires.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russian Federation emerged as an independent state under the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin. In 1993, Yeltsin used force to thwart an attempted coup by parliamentary opponents of radical reform, after which voters approved a new constitution establishing a powerful presidency and a bicameral national legislature, the Federal Assembly. The 1995 parliamentary elections featured strong support for the Communist Party and ultranationalist forces. Nevertheless, in the 1996 presidential poll, Yeltsin defeated Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov with the financial backing of powerful business magnates, who used the media empires they controlled to ensure victory.In 1999, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, then the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), as prime minister.
Conflict with the separatist republic of Chechnya, which had secured de facto independence from Moscow after a brutal 1994–96 war, resumed in 1999. Government forces reinvaded the breakaway region after Chechen rebels led an incursion into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in August and a series of deadly apartment bombings—which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants—struck Russian cities in September. The second Chechen war dramatically increased Putin’s popularity, and after the December 1999 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, progovernment parties were able to form a majority coalition.
An ailing and unpopular Yeltsin—who was constitutionally barred from a third presidential term—resigned on December 31, 1999, transferring power to Putin. The new acting president subsequently secured a first-round victory over Zyuganov, 53 percent to 29 percent, in the March 2000 presidential election. After taking office, Putin moved quickly to reduce the influence of the legislature, tame the business community and the news media, and strengthen the FSB. He considerably altered the composition of the ruling elite through an influx of personnel from the security and military services. Overall, Putin garnered enormous personal popularity by overseeing a gradual increase in the standard of living for most of the population; the improvements were driven largely by an oil and gas boom and economic reforms that had followed a 1998 financial crisis.
In the December 2003 Duma elections, the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party captured 306 out of 450 seats. With the national broadcast media and most print outlets favoring the incumbent, no opponent was able to mount a significant challenge in the March 2004 presidential election. Putin, who refused to debate the other candidates, received 71.4 percent of the vote in a first-round victory, compared with 13.7 percent for his closest rival, the Communist-backed Nikolai Kharitonov.
Putin introduced legislative changes in 2004 that eliminated direct gubernatorial elections in favor of presidential appointments, citing a need to unify the country in the face of terrorist violence. The government also began a crackdown on democracy-promotion groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), especially those receiving foreign funding. The authorities removed another possible threat in 2005, when a court sentenced billionaire energy magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the oil firm Yukos, to eight years in prison for fraud and tax evasion. A parallel tax case against Yukos itself led to the transfer of most of its assets to the state-owned Rosneft. Khodorkovsky had antagonized the Kremlin by bankrolling opposition political activities.
A law enacted in 2006 handed bureaucrats wide discretion in shutting down NGOs that were critical of official policy. In another sign that safe avenues for dissent were disappearing, an assassin murdered investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October of that year. She had frequently criticized the Kremlin’s ongoing military campaign in Chechnya and the excesses of Russian troops in the region.
The heavily manipulated December 2007 parliamentary elections gave the ruling United Russia party 315 of the 450 Duma seats, while two other parties that generally support the Kremlin, Just Russia and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, took 38 and 40 seats, respectively. The opposition Communists won 57 seats in the effectively toothless legislature.
Putin’s handpicked successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, won the March 2008 presidential election with 70.3 percent of the vote and nearly 70 percent voter turnout. As with the 2007 parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refused to monitor the voting due to government constraints on the number of monitors and the amount of time they could spend in the country. Medvedev immediately appointed Putin as his prime minister, and the former president continued to play the dominant role in government. At the end of 2008, the leadership amended the constitution for the first time since it was adopted in 1993, extending future presidential terms from four to six years.
In 2009, assassins continued to target the regime’s most serious critics, murdering, among others, human rights activists Stanislav Markelov in January and Natalia Estemirova in July. In Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov continued to use of harsh tactics to suppress rebel activity with Putin’s backing.
Medvedev replaced key regional leaders during 2010, including longtime Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, but he left the top ranks of the law enforcement and security services largely unchanged, and there was little progress on much-needed police reform. United Russia dominated the April and October rounds of local elections, which were marred by widespread violations, including failure to register opposition candidates, ballot stuffing, and restrictions placed on election monitors.
While the political system showed signs of stagnation, civil society became more active. Early in the year, some 10,000 antigovernment protesters took to the streets in Kaliningrad, eventually forcing Medvedev to replace the governor. Numerous other protests during the year sought protection for the right to assemble and to block the destruction of treasured environmental assets. Under public pressure, Medvedev temporarily halted construction of a road through the Khimki forest near Moscow. At the same time, Putin openly expressed hostility toward demonstrators and his government allowed construction to proceed. Many citizens simply sidestepped their ineffective public institutions: when devastating wildfires raged in many parts of the country in August, volunteers organized to help neighbors in need. However, activism also had a dark side. In December, ultranationalists gathered 10,000 supporters for a demonstration near the Kremlin, beating passersby who appeared non-Slavic.
Russia is not an electoral democracy. The 2007 State Duma elections were carefully engineered by the administration, handing pro-Kremlin parties a supermajority in the lower house, which is powerless in practice. In the 2008 presidential election, state dominance of the media was on full display, debate was absent, and incumbent Vladimir Putin was able to pass the office to his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.