1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 4

Ratings Change

Russia's civil liberties rating changed from 4 to 5 due to growing harassment of ethnic Chechens in the wake of several deadly bombings in August, and increased political interference in the media during the Chechnya crisis and preceding the parliamentary elections.


The last day of 1999 signaled the end of an era in Russian politics, as President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on December 31, six months ahead of scheduled presidential elections. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had been Yeltsin's choice to succeed him, became acting head of state pending presidential elections rescheduled from June 2000 to March 2000. In September, Russia launched its second war in Chechnya during the 1990s, with Putin as one of its key backers. Following a series of deadly bomb blasts in Moscow and other cities in August, which the government blamed on Chechen rebels, the campaign in Chechnya quickly gained overwhelming public support.

The year was also marked by the Kremlin's various political maneuverings, including the dismissal of two prime ministers, preceding parliamentary elections in December. The pro-Kremlin Unity bloc, created to counter the influence of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, made a strong showing in the legislative poll, coming in a close second to the Communist Party. The success of Unity was largely attributed to its endorsement by Putin, whose own popularity had increased dramatically as the result of his close association with the military campaign in Chechnya.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia reemerged as a separate, independent state for the first time since 1921 under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected president in June 1991. 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 giant 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, as the Communist Party won 157 seats; Our Home is Russia, 55; the Liberal Democrats, 51; and Yabloko, 45. Independent candidates and other smaller parties captured the remaining seats.

In presidential elections in 1996, 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 1996 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, appointing Chernomyrdin as acting prime minister. However, after parliament twice rejected Chernomyrdin's candidacy, Yeltsin nominated Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who was approved by the legislature in September. The new government, which did not include any well-known reformers, signaled a return to greater spending and state control.

The first several months of 1999 were marked by an impending political crisis, as the Duma decided in March to begin impeachment debates in the near future against Yeltsin over five charges, including starting the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. On May 12, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Primakov, replacing him with his longtime loyal ally Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Many analysts concluded that the decision was a tactic to avoid impeachment, as the constitution stipulates that the president may dissolve parliament if he appoints a prime minister who fails to win confirmation in three parliamentary votes. In addition, Primakov's moves to establish an independent power base by consolidating various political forces was viewed as a growing threat to Yeltsin and his inner circle. After three days of debate, the impeachment vote failed on May 15, and parliament approved Stepashin as prime minister by a wide margin of 301 to 55 on May 19.

In a development which threatened to destabilize the northern Caucasus region, a group of over 1,000 Chechen guerillas led by the warlord Shamil Basayev crossed into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in early August, seizing several towns and declaring their intention to unite Chechnya and Dagestan as an independent Islamic state. Russian troops, which responded with a major offensive, recaptured the villages and claimed to have driven the guerillas back into bases in Chechnya by late September.

On August 4, a political coalition between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's Fatherland group and the All Russia bloc of regional governors was formed to contest December's parliamentary vote. Former Prime Minster Yevgeny Primakov was chosen to lead the new alliance, which brought together the influential Luzhkov and Primakov with many of the nation's most powerful regional bosses. Poised to become a major contender in the upcoming elections, Fatherland-All Russia was viewed as a threat to the political ambitions of Kremlin supporters and Boris Yeltsin, with whom Luzhkov had been feuding publicly for months.

Just five days later, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Stepashin and his entire cabinet on August 9. Some analysts speculated that Stepashin's recent admission that he could support certain forces within Fatherland-All Russia may have helped trigger his dismissal. Vladimir Putin, a career intelligence officer and the head of the Federal Security Service, was subsequently named as Stepashin's replacement. Yeltsin, whose term would expire in 2000 and who was ineligible to run for a third term, immediately suggested that Putin was his preferred successor in presidential elections scheduled for the following year.

During a two-week period in August and September, a string of deadly bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities killed nearly 300 people. Although the Kremlin blamed the attacks on Chechen militants, both the Chechen government and rebel groups denied any involvement. Subsequently, Moscow police launched "operation whirlwind," a massive security sweep justified as a necessary measure in response to the bombings, in which reportedly 20,000 people were detained for identity checks and alleged violations of Moscow residency permits. According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities forced non-Muscovites to reregister with police and housing authorities, expelling from the city thousands who lacked registration documents. The authorities almost exclusively targeted darker-skinned people, particularly ethnic Chechens or others from the Caucasus region, and refused to reregister Chechens. Many of those detained alleged that they were forced to pay bribes and had been stopped by police numerous times to have their documents checked. In late December, eight people were arrested in connection with the bombings, while nine other suspects were being sought.

In what was described by Moscow as an operation to destroy the Islamic militants who invaded Dagestan and who were blamed for the bombings in Russia, the Kremlin ordered air strikes on key Chechen military installations and economic targets, and the subsequent deployment of ground troops in Chechnya. Russian troops advanced rapidly over the largely flat terrain in the northern third of the republic, which Chechen fighters surrendered with little opposition. However, their progress slowed considerably as they neared the heavily-defended city of Grozny, the key focus of their military campaign. After entering the city in mid-December, where they met their most intense resistance from experienced and motivated rebels, they still had not gained control of the center of the city by year's end.

As Russia's assault increasingly included deliberate and indiscriminate bomb attacks on civilian targets, over 200,000 people fled Chechnya, most to the tiny neighboring republic of Ingushetia. In Grozny, tens of thousands of residents, mostly the elderly and infirm, remained trapped in basements during the deadly air and artillery strikes. While Western governments and international organizations expressed growing condemnation of the attacks, the campaign enjoyed broad popular support in Russia, fueled by the media's one-sided reporting favoring the official government line and the public's fear of further bomb attacks.

During the months preceding parliamentary elections on Decemer 19, Prime Minister Putin saw his public approval ratings rise from single digits to close to 80 percent according to some polls. His meteoric rise was largely the result of his close association with the popular military campaign in Chechnya, of which he was a key backer, and the perception of his being a vigorous and disciplined leader in contrast to the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Putin subsequently lent his endorsement to the Unity bloc, a diverse grouping of political figures led by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. The coalition had been created in late September by the Kremlin to ensure support for the government in the legislative poll. While lacking a political program, Unity appealed to voters on the basis of its image as a champion of the restoration of order and tough leadership, as embodied by Putin.

Although somewhat overshadowed by the war in Chechnya, media coverage of the pre-election campaign was marked by an intense battle of often unsubstantiated allegations between supporters of Kremlin-backed forces on the one hand and defenders of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, led by Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, on the other. Most of the comments by the candidates and their media sponsors were characterized by personal attacks rather than any serious ideological debate. Although initially regarded as an unbeatable opposition candidate, Primakov, along with Luzhkov, saw his support decline in the face of both Putin's rise in popularity and the success of relentless attacks by the pro-Kremlin ORT television network.

Of the 28 parties which competed for the 225 seats decided on the basis of party lists, the Communist Party secured the largest number of votes, at 24.3 percent (67 seats), followed closely by Unity with 23.3 percent (64 seats). Other parties which crossed the five percent threshold to enter parliament were Fatherland-All Russia with 13.3 percent (37 seats); the Union of Right Forces, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, with 8.5 percent (24 seats); the ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky bloc, with 6 percent (17 seats); and the reformist Yabloko, headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, with 5.9 percent (16 seats). Of the remaining 225 seats chosen in single-mandate constituency races, 100 went to candidates officially declared as independents.

While the Communists formed the single largest bloc, the results were seen by many as a surprising and important victory for pro-government forces. However, most analysts regarded the parliamentary race's real significance as a test for presidential elections in 2000. In a surprise move, President Yeltsin announced his resignation on December 31, turning over the reins of power to Vladimir Putin. Many observers agreed that his 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. His resignation served to move up the presidential poll by three months, from June to March 2000, allowing Putin's popularity less time to wane before the election. Yeltsin's worsening health problems, including a hospitalization in November for suspected pneumonia, may also have contributed to his decision to retire.

Throughout the year, relations between Russia and the West became increasingly strained over a number of developments, including NATO's enlargement into Eastern Europe; the alliance's bombing of the traditional Russian ally of Serbia; a money laundering scandal surrounding the Bank of New York; the U.S. plan to build a national missile defense system; mutual charges of espionage; and the West's increasingly harsh criticism of the war in Chechnya. Despite strong support from President Bill Clinton, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October, saying it would undermine strategic stability. On December 13, the Duma rejected the START-2 nuclear arms reduction treaty, signed nearly seven years ago and already approved by the United States.

Russia's economy in 1999 began to show some signs of recovery after the previous year's negative growth in the wake of the August ruble crisis. Nevertheless, the positive developments of rising oil prices, a record-level trade surplus, and increased tax collection were not enough to offset the effects of rampant corruption, massive capital flight, and the expenses of the war in Chechnya. In December, the IMF announced that it would delay disbursement of further loans to Russia over failures to implement agreed-upon structural reforms, though analysts speculated that future loans would not be approved while Russia continued its assault on Chechnya. Russia suffered setbacks regarding energy transit routes during the year, with several Western-backed completed or planned oil and gas pipelines bypassing Russian territory. In early 1999, the Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft was forced to close its main line running across Chechnya from Azerbaijan to the port of Novorossiisk, after it effectively lost control of the line to Chechen rebels.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Russians can change their government democratically. 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. Though marred by irregularities, the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were deemed generally free and fair by international observers. Among the problems cited in the 1999 vote were the use of strict electoral laws to disqualify candidates, sometimes unjustly, and the biased media coverage of the election campaign.

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the government continued to exert pressure on the media, particularly regarding corruption issues and criticism of the authorities. Russia's powerful financial groups increasingly have acquired control of or fund most major media outlets, which in turn receive some government sponsorship or have connections to the government or other political figures. This close relationship between political forces and the media has served to compromise the latter's editorial independence. The campaign period preceding December's parliamentary elections was characterized by an unprecedented "media war" of smear campaigns and propaganda reports between two media groups led by Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. ORT television, of which the government owns 51 percent and oligarch and Kremlin insider Berezovsky reportedly the other 49 percent, is the nation's leading television station and the only network broadcasting throughout the country. The station's controversial news anchor Sergei Dorenko actively criticized Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a leader of the Fatherland-All Russia coalition and a staunch critic of Yeltsin. Berezovsky also controls the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the business daily Kommersant. The Media-MOST empire, run by Gusinsky, includes NTV television, the Ekho Moskvy radio station, and the daily newspaper Segodnya. Media-MOST's outlets, which have in turn sided with Fatherland-All Russia, were harshly critical of Berezovsky and the presidential administration. At the regional level, authorities reportedly increased their use of political pressure and threats against journalists and broadcasters in their struggles for power.

In July, President Yeltsin established a new press ministry led by Kremlin insider Mikhail Lesin, who immediately declared his intentions to "protect" the state against the media. In November, the Central Election Commission (CEC) announced plans to establish rules against "agitation," under which journalists would not be permitted to portray candidates in either a positive or negative light. While the CEC called the move an attempt to ensure free and fair elections in light of the pre-election campaign mudslinging, critics complained that it would effectively impose limits on freedom of the press.

In contrast to the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, when Russian journalists spearheaded opposition to the conflict, the media were largely supportive of the 1999 campaign. The military severely restricted journalists' access to the war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the government. In addition, fears of kidnapping kept many media outlets away from the region for the last few years.

While freedom of religion is generally respected in this primarily Russian Orthodox country, a controversial 1997 law on religion favors established religions with national organizations which have existed for more than 15 years, and regional authorities continued to harass nontraditional groups. However, in a test case involving the Jehovah's Witnesses, the constitutional court in November eased some restrictions on religious worship. Under the verdict, local religious organizations registered before 1997 do not need to reregister, and local branches of "centralized" organizations do not have to prove their 15-year status and should be registered automatically. Attacks on synagogues and other anti-Semitic actions increased during the year, including the July stabbing of a prominent Jewish leader by a neo-Nazi. In November, nearly 100 Jewish organizations from across Russia formed the national Federation of Jewish Communities to assist local Jewish institutions and to sponsor a legal fund to fight anti-Semitism.

The government largely 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 Unity Party, which offered few policy opinions, was formed in late 1999 as a vehicle to challenge the Fatherland/All Russia bloc in December's parliamentary elections. While the number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has continued to grow, parliament adopted a law in June requiring NGOs to reregister in order to own property or maintain a bank account. Critics charge that the law represents greater state intervention in the nonprofit sector and will deprive many organizations of the legal standing which they need to continue to operate.

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.

The judiciary is not fully independent and is subject to political interference, corruption, and chronic under-funding. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, police routinely use torture against detainees to force confessions, but are rarely prosecuted for committing such abuses. Judges commonly accept as evidence confessions made during torture. The prosecutor's office is responsible both for working with police in criminal investigations and fielding grievances against the police, a situation which creates a conflict of interest in cases of torture. In December, the Duma unanimously voted to expand the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) to fight terrorism or prevent mass disturbances. Critics expressed concern that the measure would provide a dangerous increase in the FSB's authority, including the right to seal off entire regions. Pre-trial detention centers and prisons suffer from overcrowding and disease among inmates. A constitutional court ruling in December upheld the president's right to suspend Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov pending an investigation into his alleged criminal wrongdoing. Skuratov maintains that his suspension earlier in the year was designed to stop his investigation into allegations of Kremlin corruption. In two positive developments, former naval officer Alexander Nikitin and Captain Grigory Pasko were acquitted of espionage charges stemming from their separate reports documenting environmental damage caused by the navy's negligent handling of nuclear waste. In late 1999, parliament approved a new criminal code.

Corruption throughout the government and business world is pervasive, with Russian authorities rarely able to obtain successful prosecutions of influential businessmen and politicians. Members of the old Soviet Communist elite used insider information, contacts, and extra-judicial means to obtain control of key industrial and business sectors. Widespread corruption remains a serious obstacle to the creation of an effective market economy and an impediment to genuine equality of opportunity. A series of high-level corruption scandals broke in 1999, including accusations that Russian businesses and organized crime laundered up to $10 billion through the Bank of New York and allegations that a Swiss construction firm received kickbacks to renovate the Kremlin.

Despite a constitutional court ruling that propiskas, or residence permits, violate the constitution, the continued use of Soviet-era residency laws in many areas severely hinders the ability of outsiders to register to live or work in certain regions. In late 1999, Moscow police detained and deported mostly ethnic Chechens who were not registered in the capital city as part of an alleged security sweep following several bomb attacks in Russia. Critics maintained that these actions violated both a 1991 law and a subsequent court decision outlawing the use of residence permits in Moscow and other municipalities.

Women are underrepresented in government and in management positions in the business world. According to a recent study by the U.S.-based Women, Law and Development International, male employers frequently discriminate against women who have children, are deemed unattractive, or are unwilling to provide sexual favors to the employer or his clients. Domestic violence remains a serious problem, with law enforcement authorities offering little protection or assistance.

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