Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Partly Free
Population: 145,500,000
GNI/Capita: $1,750
Life Expectancy: 65
Religious Groups: Russian Orthodox, Muslim, other
Ethnic Groups: Russian (82 percent), Tatar (4 percent), Ukrainian (3 percent), other (11 percent)
Capital: Moscow


For Russia, 2003 was marked by further movement toward authoritarianism by President Vladimir Putin and the government, signaling the consolidation of power and influence by a ruling elite dominated by former military and security service officers, who now occupy 25 percent of key government and legislative positions. In mid-year, the country's last remaining independent television network was taken over by the government and replaced by an all-sports channel. Restrictive new legislation was passed that for three months threatened free media comment on politics and policies, until it was reversed by the country's constitutional court. In October, with end-of-year parliamentary elections and March 2004 presidential elections nearing, Russian authorities launched a far-reaching prosecution of an economic magnate who supported liberal opposition parties, precipitating a steep decline in Russia's stock exchanges. At the same time, the headquarters of a political consulting firm working for a major opposition party was raided by police.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russian Federation reemerged as a separate, independent state under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected president in June of that year. In 1993, Yeltsin put down an attempted coup by hard-liners in parliament, and a new constitution creating a bicameral national legislature, the Federal Assembly, was approved. The December 1995 parliamentary elections, in which 43 parties competed, saw the victory of Communists and nationalist forces. In the 1996 presidential elections, Yeltsin, supported by the country's most influential media and business elites, easily defeated Communist Gennady Zyuganov. The August 1998 collapse of the ruble and Russia's financial markets ushered in a new government that returned to greater state spending and economic control. One year later, Federal Security Service head Vladimir Putin was named prime minister. Yeltsin, whose term was to expire in 2000 and who could not run for a third term, declared Putin his preferred successor in the next presidential elections.

Conflict with separatist Chechnya, which included a brutal two-year war, from 1994 to 1996, was reignited in 1999. After a Chechen rebel attack on neighboring Dagestan in August and deadly apartment house bombings in several cities blamed by the Kremlin on Chechen militants, Russia responded with an attack on the breakaway region. The second Chechen war dramatically increased Putin's popularity and, after December 1999 elections to the lower house of parliament (Duma), pro-government forces were able to shape a majority coalition.

A frail President Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, turning over power to Putin, who, in March 2000, secured a 53 percent first-round victory over Zyuganov, who received 29 percent. After taking office in March 2000, Putin consolidated his power. He pushed through legislation removing Russia's 89 governors from positions in the upper house of parliament (the Federation Council) and allowing the president to suspend them from office if they violated federal law. Putin created seven new "super regions" headed by Kremlin appointees and introduced personnel changes that have considerably altered the composition of the ruling Russian elite through the influx of representatives of the security and military services; they now represent more than 25 percent of the country's ministers, deputy ministers, legislators, governors, and "super governors." He also challenged the political clout of some economic magnates – including media owners Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky – through a series of criminal investigations and legal proceedings claimed to be part of an anticorruption campaign, but which critics suggested were selective political persecutions.

In October 2002, Chechen militants took approximately 750 people hostage in a raid on a Moscow theater. Russian special forces stormed the building, killing all the Chechen fighters (approximately 50). The raid employed a powerful sedative gas that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 hostages.

Throughout most of 2003 – and with the December 2003 parliamentary elections and a March 2004 presidential race looming – Russia saw a significant deterioration of fundamental rights and the emergence of an increasingly assertive foreign policy, reflecting the consolidation of power by former security and military officers.

In June, there was further consolidation of state control over broadcast media with the closure of TVS, the country's last independent television station. The station was taken over by the government for what it said was financial insolvency, although authorities rejected a new investor ready to assume the network's debt. Reporting on politics had been threatened by onerous new constraints after Putin signed legislation passed in July that made media susceptible to closure for criticizing positions of candidates for office. In October, Russia's constitutional court struck down key provisions of the law that banned journalists from making positive or negative observations about candidates or parties. Still, the law's operation had a chilling effect on media coverage of politics for several months. Russia's Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov had noted that "as a result of this law, the mass media has been forced to be silent about the election campaign."

In September, Russian authorities took control of VTsIOM, the All Union Institute on Public Opinion, the country's most respected polling firm. VTsIOM staff suggested that Russian authorities acted after the research firm had published a series of polls showing dwindling support for the ongoing war in Chechnya and majority support for a negotiated solution. The VTsIOM management and staff subsequently established a new privately held concern.

Emblematic of worsening domestic trends was the October 25 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chairman of the Yukos energy concern and Russia's richest and most influential economic magnate. Speculation concerning Khodorkovsky's arrest and pending prosecution of other Yukos officials centered on politics rather than alleged corruption. Khodorkovsky had actively supported pro-market opposition liberal parties. Indeed, many of the charges against him stemmed from the early period of Russia's economic transition from communism, when a maze of contradictory laws meant that many people engaged in business were not fully compliant with Russian law.

Russia pursued efforts at greater integration among neighboring former Soviet republics with the creation in September of a Unified Economic Space that would eventually link Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. However, plans for the new economic area were set back by the Russia-Ukraine border dispute that erupted in the fall and signaled significant hardening in the policies of the Russian state. In late September, Russia unilaterally and unexpectedly began construction of a dam that eventually encroached on Ukraine's territory. The action raised tensions and was accompanied by assertions from high-ranking Russian government officials that the island of Tuzla – heretofore recognized by Russia as part of Ukraine – was disputed territory. The head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee claimed that both Tuzla and Ukraine's port city of Sevastopol were Russian.

Political assassinations remained a feature of Russian life. In April, unknown assailants shot dead Sergei Yushenkov, a respected member of the Duma and head of the Liberal Russia Party.

Strife in Chechnya continued with Russian counterinsurgency operations, and guerrilla warfare, assassinations, and acts of terrorism by Chechen rebels. Russia moved forward with a new constitution for the disputed territory. An October 5, 2003 election boycotted by Chechen rebels and their supporters saw the victory of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin's hand-picked candidate, who captured 81 percent of the vote from a claimed turnout of 88 percent. International observers questioned the accuracy and legitimacy of the flawed ballot.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

There are growing questions whether Russians can change their government democratically, particularly in light of the state's far-reaching control of broadcast media and growing harassment of opposition parties and their financial backers. The 1999 Duma election was regarded as generally free and fair despite some irregularities, including biased media coverage. In the run-up to the December 2003 legislative election, opposition political parties widely criticized distorted and unbalanced coverage of their campaigns. The 2000 presidential vote was marred by irregularities. A comprehensive six-month investigation by the Moscow Times concluded that incumbent president Vladimir Putin would have faced a second-round runoff if not for widespread fraud; but it also concluded that Putin would most likely have won in the second round. Among the reasons cited for his victory were biased coverage by large media outlets controlled by the state and by Kremlin supporters. The 1993 constitution established a strong presidency with the power to appoint, pending parliamentary confirmation, and dismiss the prime minister. The bicameral legislature consists of a lower chamber (the Duma) and an upper chamber (the Federation Council).

Corruption throughout the government and business world is pervasive. Russia ranked 86 out of 133 countries in Transparency International's 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index. Tough legislation to combat money laundering entered into force in 2002, leading the Financial Action Task Force of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to remove Russia from its list of noncooperating countries. However, at the end of 2003, the arrest of Yukos Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and several of his associates, coming on the heels of the persecution and prosecution of media owners Vladimir Gusinksy and Boris Berezovsky, confirmed perceptions by many independent Russian analysts that Putin's anticorruption efforts have been applied selectively and have often targeted critics and emerging political adversaries.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech, the government continues to put pressure on media outlets critical of the Kremlin. In June, Russia's last independent national television network – TVS – was seized by the government, allegedly to settle the company's debts. The action followed similar takeovers that had resulted in government control of two other independent television networks – NTV, in April 2001, and TV-6, in January 2002. The government routinely intimidates media for unsanctioned reporting on issues related to terrorism. In 2002, authorities temporarily closed a television station for allegedly promoting terrorism, threatened to shut down the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station for airing a phone interview with a hostage taker, and allowed NTV television to broadcast only edited statements made by the Chechen rebel leader inside a theater where hostages were being held.

In July, the government introduced a restrictive new law banning "illegal campaigning" by journalists. The legislation prohibited the publishing or broadcasting of information on candidates that could create a "positive or negative image of the candidate." Its far-reaching character meant that it could be used to suppress unfettered media discussion of policies and platforms of government officials and candidates during an election period. On October 30, the Constitutional Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, but for over three months the law had sent a chill over open media coverage on politicians and politics.

Throughout Russia's regions, journalists continue to be subjected to physical attack and sometimes murder. On October 9, Alexei Sidorov, editor of the Togliatti newspaper Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye, which was known for publishing reports on organized crime and local government corruption, was knifed to death outside his apartment building. His predecessor as editor, Valery Ivanov, had been murdered outside his home in April 2002. In the breakaway republic of Chechnya, the military continued to impose severe restrictions on journalists' access to the war zone, issuing accreditation primarily to those of proven loyalty to the government.

On January 23, amid generally distressing trends in media rights, a civilian court in Ussuriysk ordered the early release of Grigory Pasko, a journalist who had been found guilty on charges of espionage and had served 33 months of a four-year sentence. Press freedom organizations regarded the conviction as a politically motivated effort intended to punish Pasko for reporting on the environmental dangers posed by the Russian navy's nuclear-waste-dumping practices.

With print broadcast media increasingly under government control, the Internet, where there is wider access to independent information, is used regularly by 4.2 percent of the population. This cohort of regular users is growing by 20-40 percent per year, according to a Russian Federation government report.

Freedom of religion is respected unevenly in this predominantly Orthodox Christian country. A 1997 law on religion requires 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 consequently are restricted in their functions. Regional authorities harass nontraditional groups, with the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons among the frequent targets. Foreign religious workers are denied visas to return to Russia. In recent years, several Roman Catholic priests have been deported, barred from entry, or refused visa renewals. Following a July suicide attack by Chechen women terrorists that claimed 15 victims attending a Moscow rock-and-roll concert, rights groups reported widespread harassment and unwarranted police identity checks in major urban centers of women wearing Islamic headscarves.

Academic freedom is generally respected, although the academic system is marred by some corruption at the higher levels and by very low levels of pay for educators. A wave of prosecutions against scientists exposing alleged environmental crimes has created a chill in some research institutes, resulting in new worries about academic freedom.

The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association. However, a July 2001 law significantly limits the number of political parties in Russia by requiring that parties have at least 10,000 members to be registered, with at least 100 members in each of the country's 89 regions. In 2002, parliament adopted legislation that gives the authorities the right to suspend parties or nongovernmental organizations whose members are accused of extremism. Critics argue that the law offers an excessively broad definition of extremism, giving the government great latitude to suppress legitimate opposition political activities. The nongovernmental sector is composed of thousands of diverse groups, with many of them dependent on funding from foreign sources. There is increasing evidence that Russia's new rich are beginning to support the nongovernmental sector through charitable giving.

While trade union rights are legally protected, they are limited in practice. Although strikes and other forms of worker protest occur, some unions have criticized a labor code that entered into force in 2002 for placing further limits on the right to strike. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers held a nationwide, one-day, work stoppage and protest on March 26 in 70 of the country's 89 regions. Antiunion discrimination and reprisals for strikes are not uncommon, however, and employers often ignore collective bargaining rights. In a rapidly changing economy in transition from the former system of total state domination, unions have proved unable to establish a significant presence in much of the private sector.

The judiciary is subject to corruption and suffers from inadequate funding and a lack of qualified personnel. Following the judicial reforms of 2002, the government has made progress in greater due process and timely trials. Since January 2003, Russia's reformed criminal procedure code has provided for jury trials throughout the country, but the legislature has voted to postpone introducing jury trials in certain parts of the country by up to four years because of financial and technical difficulties. The new code also gives the right to issue arrest and search warrants to the courts, not prosecutors, and abolishes in absentia trials.

On October 23, Russian authorities raided the offices of a consultant advising the election campaign of the Yabloko political party, one of several liberal groupings supported by oil magnate and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The October 25 arrest of Khodorkovsky signaled the increasing politicization of the legal system. The arrest had been preceded by the jailing on July 2 of Khodorkovsky's associate, Platon Lebedev, head of the Menatep Financial Group. Khodorkovsky's arrest was followed by the Russian government's freezing of 44 percent of Yukos's assets he and his associates controlled. The government action precipitated a steep, one week decline of 15 percent in the Russian RTS market and raised fears about further state encroachments on the private sector.

After the arrest, the president's chief of staff resigned and there were other signs of a fierce policy struggle in which hard-liners from the security services and military had prevailed. "The law enforcement bodies have seized power," declared Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper. The arrests and investigations in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos energy company, and the Menatep Group reinforced perceptions that the rule of law is subordinated to political considerations and the judiciary is not independent of the president and his inner circle.

Critics maintain that Russia has failed to address ongoing problems such as the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials to extract confessions, and that the courts will be unable or unwilling to handle their expanded duties.

While prisons suffer from overcrowding, inadequate medical attention, and poor sanitary conditions, authorities took steps during in 2003 to reduce the prison population, including introducing alternative sentences to incarceration. The new criminal procedure code limits pretrial detention to six months and has reduced overcrowding in pretrial detention centers (known as SIZOs). In 2001, Putin disbanded the presidential pardons commission, which was viewed as a safeguard against the harsh penal system and had resulted in the release of about 60,000 inmates since its inception in 1991, and ordered the creation of commissions in each of the country's 89 regions.

Ethnic minorities, particularly those who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia, are subject to governmental and societal discrimination and harassment. Racially motivated attacks by skinheads and other extremist groups occur occasionally.

The government places some restrictions on freedom of movement and residence. All adults are legally required to carry internal passports while traveling, documents that are also necessary to obtain many government services. Some regional authorities impose residential registration rules that limit the right of citizens to choose their place of residence freely. Police reportedly demand bribes for processing registration applications and during spot checks for registration documents, and these often unfairly target the Caucasian and "dark-skinned" population.

In recent years, property rights have continued to be legally strengthened. A land code that established the legal framework for buying and selling nonagricultural land was adopted in late 2001. In June 2002, parliament passed a law allowing the sale of agricultural land to Russian citizens; such sales had been severely restricted since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Analysts, however, regarded the end-of-year prosecution of the principal owners of the Yukos group, and the unprecedented step by Russian authorities to freeze their assets in the company, as an ominous assault on the free market system.

Widespread corruption remains a serious obstacle to the creation of an effective market economy and an impediment to genuine equality of opportunity. According to a 2002 report by the Moscow-based Indem think tank, Russians spend an estimated $37 billion annually on bribes and kickbacks, ranging from small payments to traffic police to large kickbacks by companies to obtain lucrative state contracts. Members of the old Soviet elite have used insider information to obtain control of key industrial and business enterprises.

Domestic violence remains a serious problem, while police are often reluctant to intervene in what they regard as internal family matters. Economic hardships contribute to widespread trafficking of women abroad for prostitution. There is credible evidence that women face considerable discrimination in the workplace, including lower pay than their male counterparts for performing similar work.

Trend Arrow

Russia received a downward trend arrow due to increased state pressures on the media, opposition political parties, and independent business leaders.

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