Nations in Transit - Russia (2005)

  • Author: Robert W. Orttung
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    15 June 2005

Capital: Moscow
Population: 144,100,000
Status: Not Free
PPP: $2,130
Private Sector as % of GNI: na
Life Expectancy: 65
Religious Groups: Russian Orthodox, Muslim, other
Ethnic Groups: Russian (82 percent), Tatar (4 percent), Ukrainian (3 percent), other (11 percent)

NIT Ratings19971998199920012002200320042005
National GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.75
Electoral Process3.503.504.004.254.504.755.506.00
Civil Society3.754.003.754.
Independent Media3.754.254.755.255.505.505.756.00
Local GovernanceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.75
Judicial Framework and IndependenceN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.25
Democracy RatingN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A5.61

Executive Summary

Since the collapse of Communism in 1991, Russia has traveled a torturous path, building democratic institutions that have remained extremely fragile. The violent assault on the Parliament in 1993 cast a long shadow over the future. Privatization facilitated extensive organized crime and corruption, handing over many of the country's most valuable assets to a greedy band of insiders. Previously vibrant broadcasters now transmit the state's approved message. Civil society groups that had hoped to influence public policy currently fend off attacks from the security services. The business community works assiduously to toe the Kremlin line. What opposition remains seems to do so only at the whim of the president. Yet for all of Vladimir Putin's power, he stands atop a craven bureaucracy, most of whose officials are more interested in personal gain than advancing the goals of the state.

In 2004, Putin's antidemocratic policies became more pronounced. In response to a wave of bloody terrorist attacks, culminating in the school siege at Beslan in September that left 330 civilians dead, the president accelerated his campaign to concentrate power in the Kremlin by revoking the population's right to elect governors directly. At the same time, Putin's associates expanded their efforts to bring Russia's lucrative energy sector under their personal control, destroying Yukos, one of Russia's largest and most transparent companies, in the process. Throughout the year, the Kremlin continued tightening the screws on media and civil society. Externally, Putin clumsily intervened in Ukraine's elections. Having just won a second four-year term himself, Putin has stated that he will step down in 2008, though many speculate that he will rewrite the Constitution to extend his stay in office.

National Democratic Governance. Terrorism and how to respond to it defined Russia's main challenges to national democratic governance in 2004. Attacks on the Moscow metro, Russian airplanes, and the school at Beslan undermined public confidence in the stability of the Russian governmental system. Putin responded with measures designed to increase his own power. Russia's rating for national democratic governance is set at 5.75. Putin has no plan to address the separatist conflict in Chechnya beyond continued violence and no comprehensive policy for handling the challenges of terrorism. A further concentration of political and economic power offers little hope for providing realistic solutions.

Electoral Process. In 2004, Putin won a second term as president in elections that international observers deemed unfair. The incumbent campaigned in a manner that prevented a broad public discussion of his record and policies. He benefited from a heavily biased media and effective efforts to sideline the opposition. Unrealistically high turnout and support for the president in some parts of the country suggested extensive vote manipulation. Russia's rating for electoral process declines from 5.50 to 6.00 because of the many violations in the presidential elections, the weakening position of opposition parties in the country, and a new Law on Referendums that makes grassroots initiatives virtually impossible.

Civil Society. The Russian state continued its crackdown on independent organizations this year. In his annual address to the legislature, Putin warned against groups that serve foreign funders by carrying out tasks that fail to meet the interests of Russian society. Though Russia's nongovernmental organizations had to operate in an atmosphere of fear, their numbers continued to grow as many bravely continued their activities. At the same time, the number of extremist racist groups continued to grow, as did attacks on dark-skinned Russian citizens and foreigners. Russia's rating for civil society declines from 4.50 to 4.75 because of increased state attempts to control this sector of society and the growing climate of fear, as well as the continued development of extremist groups and the number of extremist attacks.

Independent Media. The Russian state continues to control the country's three main federal television networks, a key source of information for most of the population and a heavy influence on many regional broadcasters. However, there is a lively variety of views in printed media and on the Internet, available to those with the time and resources to seek them out. Unfortunately, there is very little independent analysis, as most media outlets are controlled by big businesses or regional politicians. Russia's rating for independent media drops from 5.75 to 6.00 because the Kremlin has extended its management of television broadcasts, while journalists face an increased threat of expensive libel cases and many reporters work in unsafe conditions.

Local Democratic Governance. In 2004, Putin implemented plans that effectively abolish regional democratic governance in Russia. The president is focused on creating a "power vertical" that theoretically allows him to issue commands in the Kremlin that are subsequently implemented in Russia's far-flung localities. This system removed governors from public oversight and makes them accountable to federal, rather than regional and local, interests. Russia's rating for local democratic governance is set at 5.75 because in 2004 the Putin Kremlin abolished gubernatorial elections. The reduced role for regional level public oversight exercised through the ballot box and basic principles of federalism were additional factors.

Judicial Framework and Independence. Russia has made considerable advances in the judicial sphere in recent years, giving judges the responsibility for issuing warrants and introducing jury trials. However, high-profile trials, such as those concerning Yukos and the researcher Igor Sutyagin, prosecuted as a spy, have clearly been politicized. Moreover, the Supreme Court has frequently overturned "not guilty" rulings by juries, continuing a system that strongly favors prosecutors. Russia's rating for judicial framework and independence slips from 4.75 to 5.25. Although the courts are increasingly providing citizens with an opportunity to redress wrongs committed by the state, they were even more vulnerable in 2004 to manipulation by the state in key cases.

Corruption. Although Russian politicians and the media talked about the problem frequently, officials did little to address it. Extensive corruption among law enforcement agencies in particular stymied any coherent response. Corruption had tragic consequences for Russia in 2004 as it facilitated numerous terrorist attacks on Russian territory through the exchange of access for payment. Russia's rating for corruption remains unchanged at 5.75 because the country and its political leaders seem to lack the political will to address the problem in a comprehensive manner.

Outlook for 2005. The major concerns for the year ahead are uncertainty about state policies addressing potential terrorist attacks and sharpening social problems as economic growth slows. Russia's response to terrorism in the capital and North Caucasus has cut heavily into political liberties. Russian leaders have also turned a deaf ear to the concerns of a large number of the country's poor. Putin's practice of dismantling democratic institutions and concentrating power in the Kremlin is building an increasingly inflexible system that will have greater difficulty responding to these challenges.

National Governance (Score: 5.75)

Although Russia formally elects its president, it lacks many features that are considered standard for a democratic government. Since its adoption in 1993, the Constitution has given excessive power to the executive. As events in 2004 demonstrated, the basic law provides vague guidance toward the guarantee of democratic rights. For example, it does not explicitly stipulate that governors should be elected, a lacuna that allowed President Vladimir Putin to reverse a major right enjoyed by the general population since the mid-1990s. Following the terrorist attack on Beslan in September, Putin quickly put in place a new system in which he appoints regional executives, with the approval of the regional legislatures, rather than allowing the population to elect governors directly.

While the Russian Constitution calls for the separation of powers, this principle has not been respected in practice. The executive has continued to assume increasing power over the legislative and judicial branches. With the right to appoint governors, Putin now has even more power over the upper chamber of the national legislature since governors, in turn, appoint half of the upper chamber's membership. Additionally, current legislation gives Putin the power to disband regional legislatures under some conditions as well as more influence over judges.

The national Parliament is now firmly controlled by the Kremlin. Lobbying in the State Duma, the lower house, has declined since all legislative decisions are handled by the United Russia faction. The upper chamber's Federation Council has gained notoriety for quickly adopting all bills supported by the Kremlin, even those that go against regional interests, which the chamber theoretically represents. For example, in December 2004, Putin gained the power to choose Audit Chamber leaders. Previously, the Parliament had sole control over this investigative body.

Putin faced essentially no opposition in pursuing his policies in 2004 since no influential political groups or social movements came forward to block his moves. Despite this social passivity, there is evidence suggesting that public perceptions of Putin's policies are turning negative. In December 2004,52 percent of the population believed that Russia was on the wrong path, while only 35 percent thought the country was heading in the right direction, according to polls conducted by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, Russia's most respected independent public opinion polling agency. At the end of 2003, the numbers were reversed, with 51 percent believing that things were going well and 35 percent concerned about the country's direction. Additionally, the polling agency noted declining trust in key state institutions, including the government. Nevertheless, a September 1-15 Levada Center poll showed that the presidency remains by far the most trusted institution in Russia.

While the Kremlin was concentrating its political power, it also increased its grip on the most important sectors of the economy. On December 19, the Kremlin conducted an auction that transferred Yuganskneftegaz, the most valuable asset of oil giant Yukos, to the state-owned Rosneft. The nationalization of Yuganskneftegaz marked the demise of one of Russia's most powerful independent firms, just as the jailing of former Yukos leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003 ended the firm's potential as a source of opposition. The Kremlin's claims that the action against Yukos was an attack on a small group of oligarchs designed to benefit the population at large ring hollow since control of these assets will now simply shift to a different set of elites.

Beyond the case of Yukos, Putin's closest associates have taken important positions on the boards of key energy companies, making it possible for the Kremlin to assert control over these assets as well. Presidential chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev has long headed the board of Gazprom. In 2004, deputy presidential administration head Igor Sechin was named chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft, the beneficiary of the Yukos auction, and deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov became board chairman of Transneftprodukt, the oil pipeline monopoly. Presidential foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko became chairman of the board of TVEL, the primary nuclear fuel exporter. In other sectors, Viktor Ivanov, a high-ranking member of the president's staff, was appointed to the board of Aeroflot, and presidential aide Igor Shuvalov was appointed to the board of Russia's railroad monopoly, which was recently privatized.

These moves to ensure state control over the highest tier of the economy expose the limits of Putin's efforts to liberalize Russian markets. If the state-owned energy companies continue to subsidize fuel costs within Russia, Putin will have great difficulty overcoming European objections to Russia's eventual entry into the World Trade Organization.

The Beslan hostage-taking crisis posed serious questions about Russia's security. Putin has no plan to end his use of violence in Chechnya and refuses even to acknowledge that his policies there are feeding the terrorist response. The beginnings of a plan would, at a minimum, include negotiations with more moderate groups among the Chechen separatists. Past terrorist attacks have aimed at the Moscow subway, Russian aircraft, theater performances, open-air concerts, and apartment buildings in the early morning, when many residents are likely to be home. In the future, the terrorists could focus on critical elements of Russia's infrastructure, including its various nuclear facilities.

There is little public oversight for the military and security services. Although the Parliament formally started an investigation of the Beslan events, there is little expectation that it will deliver a comprehensive and independent-minded analysis. In fact, investigation head Aleksandr Torshin blamed local officials for failing to act decisively. By the end of 2004, Torshin had not yet interviewed Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev or Federal Security Service director Nikolay Patrushev to get an account of their actions during the crisis, a question frequently expressed by many Beslan residents. Likewise, since December 2002 the strong public support for a peaceful solution to the Chechen war has fallen on deaf ears, as reported by Levada Center poll data.

Putin's efforts to concentrate power are actually weakening the state. By eliminating all potential social oversight, Putin is creating a state bureaucracy that is accountable to no one, not even himself. While ostensibly Putin seems to stand at the top of a power vertical, he has few levers to control the legions of bureaucrats below him. Corruption is a major problem, judging by the fact that many bureaucrats have more money to spend than their salaries can account for. These officials are clearly serving interests other than those of the state. The extent of this corruption places an incredible constraint on Putin's power. It also suggests that the system is not as stable as it seems. Further terrorist attacks, especially ones aimed at infrastructure, could also undermine current stability. Public perceptions of the situation are already starting to change. In mid-October, a Public Opinion Foundation poll showed that two thirds of respondents felt there is no longer any stability in Russian society.

Rather than seeking democratic controls over the state, Putin is effectively establishing broad networks of informers through which the Federal Security Service gathers information about society. The president apparently sees such a system as a replacement for a free media that would openly discuss the society's problems.

Since Russia has experienced strong economic growth over the last few years, it is possible that the country's leaders were able to deflect popular attention away from concerns about democracy. If this growth starts to slow, the leaders may face a population that is much more interested in securing basic democratic rights.

Electoral Process (Score: 6.00)

Although Russia holds regular elections at the national level based on universal suffrage, domestic and international observers do not consider them to be fair. In the March 2004 presidential elections, incumbent Vladimir Putin won 71.31 percent of the vote but secured this victory by tilting the field strongly in his favor. Most major politicians did not compete, leaving Putin to fight second-tier opponents. Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky delivered the most mocking response by running his bodyguard in his place. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that "the process overall did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election."

Most important, Putin received an overwhelming 69 percent of the campaign coverage on the main television networks' news programs, claimed the Union of Journalists. Needless to say, almost all of this coverage was positive. Opponents received much less news coverage, and there was considerable negative reporting about their activities. The Central Electoral Commission did nothing to counteract this bias.

Although Russia's major television networks offered opportunities for the candidates to debate, Putin chose not to participate. The president's decision not to discuss his policies face-to-face with his opponents deprived voters of the opportunity to see how he would defend his choices against hostile questioning. Without Putin's participation, the debates merely brought together candidates with no chance of winning. First Channel and RTR broadcast these debates mainly early in the morning, when viewership was likely to be small.

In addition to using the state-controlled media to promote Putin's candidacy, the Kremlin lined up political machines run by the country's governors to ensure a solid vote for Putin. Several regions delivered "implausible turnout and result figures," noted OSCE analysis: Dagestan (turnout, 94.1 percent; share of votes for Putin, 94.6 percent), Mordovia (94.6 percent; 91.3 percent), Bashkortostan (89 percent; 91.8 percent), Ingushetia (96.2 percent; 98.2 percent), Tatarstan (83.2 percent; 86.5 percent), and Chechnya (94 percent; 92.3 percent). In other parts of Russia, turnout was much lower and in some places dipped below the mandatory 50 percent threshold for the country as a whole. Putin's vote share was much higher in the regions where turnout was the highest. In fact, these figures are so high and out of line with those of the rest of the country that it is obvious that regional leaders seeking favor with the president manipulated the vote to improve their chance of winning future concessions from the federal government. In most regions of Russia, the economy is heavily dependent on governors.

The Voice Association for the Protection of Voters' Rights reported cases where municipal workers were ordered to vote, sometimes for one particular candidate; members of the military were told to report the time they voted; and students faced the threat of lost housing if they did not vote. The association is headquartered in Moscow and is affiliated with the National Democratic Institute.

The presidential elections show that Putin was not willing to tolerate the existence of an opposition. Even though his victory was assured long before election day, his team worked hard to guarantee that no other candidate registered a significant protest vote, noted Transitions Online. As a result, Russia's political party system is in trouble. After the December 2003 State Duma elections, essentially no important parties represented the liberal end of the political spectrum. The two major parties that support this ideology, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, have largely collapsed. Former presidential candidate and SPS leader Irina Khakamada set up a new party called Our Choice on November 1, hoping to unify liberal voters, but its initial prospects are not bright. On the other end of the spectrum, the Communist Party is growing increasingly weaker. Without a major overhaul of personnel and policies, it will continue to decline.

Given the Kremlin's crackdown on media, business, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), there are few opportunities for an opposition leader to emerge. Unfortunately, the opposition failed to capitalize even on the openings it did have. During 2004, it did not spell out an articulate alternative to Putin's policies that resonated with the population, nor did it effectively mobilize support.

Only parties set up by the Kremlin seem to be advancing. United Russia is not a party in the traditional sense, but a collection of powerful government officials that attracts new members who are interested in access to state resources. On October 27, the Federation Council approved revisions to the Law on the Russian Government that make it possible for government officials to be the leaders of political parties, further boosting United Russia's prospects.

Rodina also has strong Kremlin ties since the authorities set it up as a "constructive opposition" designed to take votes from the Left. Since it has evolved toward nationalist issues, however, Rodina has become more independent.

Putin used the shock of the Beslan attack to propose major changes in the way State Duma deputies are elected to the Parliament's lower house. Instead of the current method, in which voters choose half of their representatives by party list and half through single-member districts, Putin seeks to change the system so that all deputies are elected on the basis of party lists. Legislation was still under consideration on this issue at the beginning of 2005. Additionally, the Kremlin secured legislative approval to increase from 10,000 to 50,000 the number of members a party needs to register.

Moving to exclusive party list voting is expected to bring major benefits to the Kremlin. Under the old system, governors often controlled who was elected from single-member districts. Even though many governor-sponsored State Duma candidates ran under the United Russia label, their first loyalty was often to the governor and they represented regional interests in the lower house of the Parliament. The new system would break the connection between State Duma members and the regions. The political parties will be based in Moscow, making it easier for the Kremlin to influence whom they select for their party lists. Since the Kremlin already has extensive control over the current Duma, this reform seems designed to ensure that the Russian president is able to keep the Duma under his thumb.

Additionally, Russia adopted a new Law on Referendums on June 29. Even as it was being passed, critics complained loudly that the new rules would make it virtually impossible to force the state to hold referendums based on grassroots initiatives. The law's provisions stipulate that now only groups with registered representatives in 45 regions, each with at least 100 members, can initiate referendums. To do so, these groups must collect 2 million signatures, an unreasonable burden under Russian conditions.

Regional elections important to the Kremlin were often conducted undemocratically. After the killing of Russian-backed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9, the Kremlin secured the election of its candidate Alu Alkhanov in an illegitimate vote. Many of the Russian soldiers who were temporary residents in the region voted, and locals were cowed into backing the Kremlin candidate. The sham elections demonstrated Moscow's inability to bring the situation in Chechnya under control.

Civil Society (Score: 4.75)

Regarding civil society, this report is concerned primarily with the role that NGOs have played in overseeing state activities. Unfortunately, state attitudes toward civil society deteriorated over the course of 2004. Putin's annual Address to the Federal Assembly, which is usually viewed as a guide for action by state officials, set an adversarial tone between the state and independent groups. The president used threatening language in regard to NGOs whose goals he described as "obtaining funding from influential foreign or domestic foundations" or "servicing dubious group and commercial interests." Putin said that many Russian NGOs do not make an effort to address Russia's most pressing problems, including basic human rights violations, because they do not want to offend their sponsors. By casting doubt on the patriotism of these groups, Putin opened them to attacks by regional officials and tax collectors who did not support their activities.

Putin's speech created a climate of fear among regional NGOs, who interpreted the president's words as an implied warning. Soon after Putin's speech, masked men smashed equipment at the Kazan-based Tatarstan Human Rights Center, a group funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation. Shortly before this incident, the center had accused local police of pressuring them because of their critical attitude toward Putin and the local law enforcement authorities, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Other groups seeking to clean up Russia's notoriously corrupt police reported similar problems. Officers raided Mikhail Anshikov's Moscow-based Moe Pravo, set up in 2004 to help victims of police brutality, seizing documents, computers, and the group's cash box, reported the Toronto Star.

The Putin administration sought to promote NGOs that would cooperate more easily with the Kremlin. In June, for example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with 48 NGOs that had gained a Kremlin seal of approval. Unlike previous conferences between officials and representatives of the NGO community, such as the 2001 Civic Forum, this meeting comprised a group of guests carefully screened to cull out prominent critical groups, such as Memorial, For Human Rights, and the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. Groups like Memorial, which have documented Russian military abuses in Chechnya, are under severe pressure from the state.

The most insidious case was Putin's post-Beslan proposal to set up a public chamber representing a pseudo civil society to ostensibly oversee state actions. Once established, the body would include representatives of NGOs considered to be suitable for partnering with the authorities. In practice, the members of this body would have neither the leverage nor the incentive to hold the state accountable. "This is the real threat to Russian democracy," said Georgy Kunadze, Russia's deputy human rights ombudsman, in an article in Izvestia. Legislative consideration of Putin's proposed bill continued into 2005. Along similar lines, Putin dissolved the official Human Rights Commission in November and replaced it with the Council for Developing Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, reported the Moscow Times. The new body will help coordinate top-down initiatives with NGOs but is not seen as a way for such groups to influence the government.

The government sought to complicate the ability of NGOs to raise money even further in 2004 with changes to the tax code. The amendments were approved in the first of three readings on August 5, but no action was taken subsequently, noted the Duma Web site. Currently, there is a list of 88 foreign organizations that can make tax-free grants, but the list has not been reviewed for more than two years. If the tax code amendments are adopted, there will be a state-approved list for domestic Russian grant makers as well. Organizations not on the list will not be able to give out tax-free grants, and recipients of such funds will have to pay 24 percent of this income in taxes. The bill gives no guidance on how to compose and update the list, meaning bureaucrats will have extensive leeway. The amendments also ban foreign citizens from making grants. The International Center for Noncommercial Law described the amendments as creating serious obstacles for Russian and foreign grant makers, reported Izvestia.

In another effort to gain control of NGOs through their fund-raising, Putin issued a presidential decree on September 27 providing state funding to Russian human rights organizations and creating an International Human Rights Center that will defend the rights of Russian citizens abroad. Yuri Samodurov, head of the Sakharov Museum, described the measure as a return to the "Soviet system of quasi-public organizations." As in other areas, the Kremlin will spend money to set up organizations that are essentially loyal to it, while using such groups to crowd out truly independent organizations.

Not all of the problems with civil society are caused by the state. In many cases, civil society groups have failed to grab the attention of citizens. As with all NGOs, Russian groups sometimes advocate inappropriate programs, deliver services inefficiently, and pursue projects that are based more on ideological preferences than the needs of citizens. Some groups are more interested in pursuing Western grants than dealing with locally defined issues. Likewise, groups based in Moscow and St. Petersburg do not always see eye to eye with groups based in the regions.

Despite such problems, the NGO community continued to expand. In 2004, there were more than 70 active economic policy institutions in Russia with annual budgets of US$50,000. Like most think tanks around the world, these groups often have trouble exerting a real influence on policy, such as changing legislation or facilitating the adoption of new economic programs. Financing is a big problem for such groups. Russian think tanks do not have endowments, but accepting support from the government could endanger their independence.

Despite the growing number of organizations, the human rights movement is in "crisis," says Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civic Assistance and co-chairwoman of Memorial, as reported by Novaya Gazeta. Currently, human rights groups can help individuals, but the groups' daily work does not affect the nationwide situation, "which is getting worse and worse" with the spread of corruption and xenophobia.

With the rising number of terrorist attacks, Russia has witnessed an increase in skinheads targeting dark-skinned foreigners. On February 9, a group of young men killed a nine-year-old Tajik girl walking home with her family in St. Petersburg. In the same city in June, neo-Nazis shot and killed ethnographer Nikolai Girenko, an expert on the country's extremists, founder of the Group for the Rights of Ethnic Minorities, and an adviser in 15 Russian ethnic hate-crime trials who worked hard to jail violent extremists, reported Time Europe.

Racially motivated attacks increased after the Beslan hostage crisis. Between 20 and 30 victims die each year from such assaults, which are increasing at an annual rate of 30 percent, according to a report by the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a branch of the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. There are an estimated 50 neo-Nazi groups in Russia, and the number of skinheads rose from 30,000 to 50,000 in the last two years, claimed Alexander Tarasov of the Moscow-based Feniks think tank. Tarasov noted that many new skinhead incidents are being reported from cities across Russia.

Independent Media (Score: 6.00)

Russian media are losing the limited freedom they once enjoyed. During the 1990s, NTV news broadcasts were relatively free to criticize the government, though they remained under the control of powerful business groups. Since Putin came to power at the beginning of 2000, this situation has deteriorated dramatically. Now, the state maintains extensive control over electronic media, where most of the population gets its information. In contrast, there is relative freedom and a wide variety of views in print media and on the Internet.

Because of Putin's crackdown on the three major television networks, Freedom House currently rates Russia's media as "Not Free." Kremlin chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev holds Friday meetings with the heads of the state-owned broadcasters to determine how the news will be covered, notes an OSCE report. Events that show the state in a bad light are conveniently ignored. Russia's main broadcasters, for example, spent little time reporting on the campaign against Yukos, discord in the cabinet, the grief of Beslan families, or the incompetence of the country's law enforcement agencies, reported Masha Lipman in The Washington Post. The list of forbidden topics continues to grow and now includes any favorable views of the Orange revolution in Ukraine.

During the course of 2004, the government continued its crackdown on NTV, Russia's most independent national broadcaster. During the summer, it yanked the last two independent talk shows from the air, Leonid Parfenov's Namedni and Savik Shuster's Svoboda Slova. The latter was the only remaining political show on Russian television that was broadcast live. Other talk shows use a tape delay, making it possible to edit out any spontaneous criticism of the government.

NTV's state-controlled managers are filling the station's leadership with reliable administrators, such as Vladimir Kulistikov, who told The New York Times, "If I were not loyal to Putin, I would not work here." In July, Tamara Gavrilova, who studied with Putin, became NTV's first deputy general director. The same month, Putin signed a decree making Oleg Dobrodeev general director of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK). Dobrodeev previously led NTV, but owner Vladimir Gusinsky fired him for being insufficiently critical of the government, according to the New York University School of Law's East European Constitutional Review. As part of the reorganization, Russia's second channel (RTR), the Culture network, and VGTRK's regional stations lost their status as financially and administratively independent units and became subdivisions of the holding company.

The state's most powerful weapon against journalists is its ability to open legal cases against them, according to Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Coverage of the ongoing war in Chechnya is a particularly sore point. In July, the Ministry of the Interior took over the job of issuing permits for journalists to travel to the separatist republic. Previously, the presidential administration controlled this access but was criticized because many journalists went there without permission. Authorities often blame journalists for the country's problems for instance, provoking a banking crisis during the summer or the controversy surrounding the government's unpopular decision to convert in-kind benefits, such as free access to public transportation, to cash payments of lesser value.

The state made it extremely difficult for the media to cover the hostage crisis in Beslan in September. In a comprehensive report on the incident, the OSCE noted that the government did not provide timely and truthful information about how many people were taken hostage, the number of hostage takers, who they were, or what their demands were. The state's behavior in the critical days of the siege created a triple credibility gap among government, media, and citizens, the OSCE noted. The authorities, for example, repeatedly said that there were 354 hostages when in fact there were approximately 1,200.

The three main television broadcasters did not provide accurate and timely information during the crisis, though Internet and print media did offer more comprehensive coverage. Television media had few interviews with the families of the hostages and were slow to report the public's fury at the government.

Additionally, the state apparently detained and harassed several journalists, making it difficult for them to do their work. Novaya Gazeta's Anna Politkovskaya may have been poisoned on a flight to Rostov-na-Donu. Radio Liberty's Andrei Babitsky was detained at Vnukovo airport on September 2 en route to Mineralnyi vodi. Georgian Television journalist Nana Lezhava was arrested after covering the Beslan crisis and then claimed to be drugged during interrogation.

In the aftermath of the crisis, Profmedia, the media branch of magnate Sergei Potanin's business empire and owner of Izvestia, fired editor Raf Shakirov for publishing large pictures of wounded children on the first and last pages of the newspaper on September 4. An Izvestia staffer said that Shakirov had to leave after the paper received an angry call from the Kremlin, claiming that the paper's coverage was too emotional, reported the Moscow Times.

At least one journalist was killed as a result of his work in 2004, according to the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Reuters photographer Adlan Khasanov was killed in the bombing of Kremlin-sponsored Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9. Additionally, at the end of 2004 the investigation continued into the murder of Paul Klebnikov, an American journalist working as editor of the Russian edition of Forbes who was killed July 9 as he was leaving his office. After erroneously blaming the case on two Chechens and then withdrawing the accusations, the authorities arrested another Chechen in November, linking the murder to Klebnikov's book on Khozh-Akmed Nukhaev, who had provided funding to Chechen fighters, as reported in New York magazine. Three journalists disappeared or were kidnapped during the year, while many others were physically attacked or faced other forms of intimidation. Reporters Without Borders noted that Russia led all post-Soviet countries for attacks on journalists in 2004.

Print media and the Internet continue to publish a variety of opinions, so critical voices do persist and people with time and money can find them, as noted in a Moscow Times "Context" piece. However, these sources of information reach only a limited elite. Circulation of critical publications usually does not exceed 100,000 in a country of nearly 145 million. The critical press overall does not exceed more than 1 million copies, whereas television reaches into 98 percent of Russia's households, stated Masha Gessen, deputy editor of the Moscow weekly Bolshoy Gorod. Ekho Moskvy radio station broadcasts the kind of political discussion banned from television, but the number of people who hear it is shrinking as regional editors are becoming increasingly nervous and cities pull out of its network. REN TV also broadcasts critical news but has fewer resources than other national networks, though its reach throughout the regions is substantial.

Even print media have many problems. Most newspapers are controlled by the oligarchs or governors who subsidize them. Journalists take money to write positive articles about companies that sponsor them or negative ones about their competitors. Such practices are extremely hard to measure because they can involve the entire newspaper or broadcaster, a department within the outlet, or an individual reporter. Only a handful of the country's 7,500 existing newspaper, TV, and radio outlets categorically refuse to take these bribes, according to Aleksei Pankin, editor of the media industry journal Sreda, reported Newsweek. Companies can also pay to block the publication of any negative information. Because the advertising market is relatively small, there are almost no independently financed newspapers.

Print media also face large libel cases that threaten their coverage. On October 20, the Moscow Arbitrazh Court ordered Kommersant to pay Alfa Bank 321 million rubles (US$11.7 million) for a July 7 article it deemed "libelous." The judgment is believed to be the largest that Russian courts have imposed on a media outlet, according to RFE/RL. Kommersant general director Aleksei Vasiliev charged that some of the business elite are trying to score points with the Kremlin by harassing the independent media. Kommersant has been owned since 1999 by Boris Berezovsky, the once powerful oligarch who is now in exile in London. State Duma Information Policy Committee deputy chairman Boris Reznik said that the size of the judgment was an attempt to destroy the frequently critical newspaper. While Kommersant may be able to pay the fee from Berezovsky's deep pockets, other independent newspapers would not have such backing. Novaya Gazeta faced the previous largest libel conviction of US$1.5 million, but the ruling was subsequently overturned.

Internet expansion is a potential bright spot for the Russian media. The number of households connected to the Internet has grown by one third every year, and the revenue of service providers increases by 25 percent annually, as reported in Kommersant from data provided by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies. More than 8 million households in Russia are expected to be Internet users by the end of 2004, or about 8-10 percent of the population, up from 2 percent in 2000. The gap between the capital cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the regions is decreasing but remains large. Estimates suggest that 24-40 percent of residents in these cities use the Internet, as noted by RAND analyst D.J. Peterson, speaking at the Kennan Institute. Moreover, the number of domestic broadband subscribers is increasing.

The Russian segment of the Internet is growing bigger and more interesting. Runet, named for Russia's .ru Web suffix, has over 200,000 registered domain names, according to RIA Novosti. But such figures pale in comparison with those from other developed countries such as Germany, which has 7 million, for example. Additionally, Russia lags behind Peru, Egypt, and Sri Lanka in terms of openness to the Internet, reported the Economist Intelligence Unit. This study examined the number of dial-up and cable connections per capita, the overall business environment, and the rate at which consumers and businesses take advantage of the Internet. So far, the Internet is having little impact on the political system and civil society because the state is making much more active use of its potential than NGOs, according to Peterson.

A new bill on media under consideration by the State Duma has provoked a discussion about imposing more controls over Internet publications, but Russia did not adopt such legislation in 2004. However, a Krasnoyarsk court sentenced Andrei Skovorodnikov, leader of the local National Bolshevik Party, to six months' corrective labor for creating a Web site that insulted Putin. In Ingushetia, the authorities shut the last local Internet café in October.

Local Governance (Score: 5.75)

Putin used the opportunity of the Beslan terrorist attack to introduce changes that dramatically reduced the autonomous power of Russia's regional governments. By ending direct gubernatorial elections, the president's measures replaced federal institutions with those more closely resembling a unitary state.

Since 1996, Russia has elected its governors through direct popular elections. In 2004, Putin scrapped this system and replaced it with one under which the Russian president will appoint governors who are then confirmed by regional legislatures. However, if the legislature rejects the president's choice three times in a row, the president can disband the legislature, call new elections, and appoint an interim governor until a new legislature is elected to approve him. Additionally, Putin now has the power to fire governors at his discretion.

Under the new system, citizens will no longer have the ability to choose their regional leaders. Rather, the presidential chief of staff, working with the president's seven regional envoys, will prepare a list of at least two candidates. The new governors will not serve or be accountable to regional interests. Instead, as has already been seen in the behavior of current governors maneuvering for reappointment, they will seek to curry favor with the Kremlin and those close to it. If Putin moves forward with plans to drastically cut the number of regions, he could soon be appointing a small number of officials who will handle regional affairs.

The outgoing system in which governors were directly elected functioned badly. The vast majority of governors were corrupt, ruling their regions as tyrants for their personal benefit and that of their closest allies. In most cases, governors were able to win reelection by manipulating the local media and otherwise pressuring voters to support them. However, in some cases when a governor failed to live up to his responsibilities, voters were able to turn him out of office and replace him with an opposition candidate. In 2004, for example, voters removed incumbent leaders in Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, Altai Krai, and Pskov. Thus, the old system had some form of public accountability, even if it was applied imperfectly.

Another problem with Putin's proposal is that the Kremlin will appoint leaders of the nonethnic Russian republics. The consequences of this change are unpredictable in regions like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which have sought to reduce federal interference in their affairs. Above all, the Kremlin prizes stability in these regions. Outside of keeping current leaders in place, it is hard to see how the Kremlin will be able to appoint leaders who will be acceptable to the local population. To date, the Kremlin's choices have not been encouraging. In 2002, the Kremlin forced Ingushetia's leader, Ruslan Aushev, to resign and replaced him with Murat Zyazikov, who, like Putin, had a long background in the Federal Security Service. Under Zyazikov's leadership, the situation in the republic has deteriorated rapidly. At the same time, Aushev was the only regional leader to take decisive action in Beslan, saving the lives of 26 of the hostages.

Putin cynically justified his regional power grab by claiming that the new system would help protect the country from terrorist attacks. Most observers, however, could find no links between appointing governors and defeating terrorists, given that the changes in regional leadership are expected to be implemented through 2009 while Russia's need for protection against terrorism is immediate.

In fact, Putin's reform may fuel further Islamic fundamentalism. Putin, the head of a secular but Orthodox-leaning state, will appoint the leaders of Russia's numerous Islamic regions. As governors become essentially puppets of the Kremlin, a new impetus arises to support Islamism as a unifying ideology for the political opposition. The gradual absorption of Islamic sentiments and rhetoric by local ruling elites would be cut short, since it is unlikely the Kremlin will appoint such spokespeople as governors.

Russians were nearly evenly divided in their reactions to the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections, according to a Levada Center poll. In a late September survey, 44 percent supported the idea, 42 percent opposed it, and 14 percent found it difficult to answer. However, the opponents of this plan had no opportunity to make their opinions known since the Kremlin controlled the political process so tightly. The cancellation of gubernatorial elections makes it hard for subnational democracy to develop in the future and is a dramatic setback for Russian democracy in general. Voting for governors had given the Russian electorate the potential to develop a democratic culture. Appointing governors effectively removes that opportunity.

While the cancellation of gubernatorial elections is a radical break with recent Russian practice, it follows a trend that Putin developed during his first term. In order to deal with the abuses perpetrated by Russia's governors, Putin has always planned to concentrate power at the federal level, and he has been eroding regional power since coming to office. While some forms of centralization were necessary in the wake of Yeltsin's chaotic policies of decentralization such as ensuring that regional and local governments obey federal laws Putin has essentially sought a monopoly on power, leaving little to the discretion of subfederal leaders. An alternative approach to centralizing power in order to rein in the governors might have been to give additional power to the mayors. With greater autonomy from the governors, mayors could have worked to check gubernatorial power from below.

During the course of his tenure, Putin has shifted resources from the regional to the federal level. The federal government controls almost all of the important tax revenues and keeps regions on a short leash by making them dependent on federal subsidies. Such a system has worked in recent years because high oil prices allowed the federal government to take a larger share of Russia's income without forcing the decline of revenue in the regions. If Russia's oil income drops, tensions between federal and regional governments will increase dramatically as they fight over a shrinking pool of resources.

Judicial Framework and Independence (Score: 5.25)

The Russian Constitution broadly outlines basic freedoms for citizens, and in recent years the government has made progress in improving certain features of the judicial system. Russia has built additional courts, raised salaries for judges, transferred the ability to issue warrants to judges, and established jury trials for serious crimes across the country. On August 20, Putin signed into law a bill providing state protection to crime victims, witnesses, and others involved in criminal cases. The law provides for new homes, jobs, and identities. Despite these advances, serious problems remain that call into question the independence and fairness of the judicial branch.

Russia is having "great difficulty" in fulfilling the standards to which it was bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, according to Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, special rapporteur for the legal affairs and human rights committee of the Council of Europe (COE). When Russia joined the COE in 1997, it committed itself to implement the European Convention on Human Rights but has failed to apply some of its provisions, including placing all prisons under control of the Ministry of Justice.

The system still favors prosecutors and the government, which can exert heavy pressure on the judges. Judges often feel that they have little protection from violent assault or assassination. Most are overworked and underpaid. Under such conditions, many judges are quitting, leaving 5,000 vacancies on the bench, reports The Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, Putin's administration has failed to fill these vacancies quickly.

Several high-profile cases have done considerable damage to the reputation of the overall judicial system. Most independent observers view the prosecution of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a politically motivated retaliation for his publicly announced political ambitions. A guilty verdict is widely anticipated in the trial, which has dragged on for more than a year, while many others who may have committed the same kinds of crimes Khodokovsky is accused of do not face prosecution.

Likewise, the courts were frequently used to remove candidates who were unpalatable to the Kremlin in a variety of regional elections. For example, longtime Bryansk governor Yuri Lodkin suffered this fate in December, as did the mayors of Pskov and Volgograd who sought to compete with the governor.

Trials against independent analysts have shaken the academic community. In April, a 12-member jury found researcher Igor Sutyagin guilty of treason and espionage for selling information about nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British company that procurators allege was a CIA front. The Supreme Court upheld a 15-year sentence on August 17, and Sutyagin is currently appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. Sutyagin says that he was using open sources to gather the information in his reports, and Amnesty International declared him a political prisoner. Sutyagin's lawyers have pointed out that one of the jurors in the case failed to reveal his past employment working in the security services in Poland.

Additionally, in June the Supreme Court reinstated an espionage case against Siberian physicist Valentin Danilov, who six months earlier had been acquitted by a jury on charges of selling secret satellite technology to a company in China. Despite already having been found innocent, Danilov had to undergo a new trial, demonstrating that Russia has not eliminated double jeopardy as promised. In the second trial, the jury found Danilov guilty, and in November the judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison. The newspaper Moscow News charged that the Federal Security Service (FSB) is interested not in protecting state secrets, but in using that issue to carry out repressions.

The Danilov case reflects a larger trend in which the Supreme Court frequently overturns jury acquittals. The higher court overturns half of the jury acquittals it hears on appeal, lawyers told The New York Times. "Not guilty" verdicts are delivered in about 15 percent of jury trials, a great improvement on the nearly 100 percent conviction rate of the recent past before juries were introduced, according to RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly.

Other problems remain as well. Selection of jurors is not always impartial, argues Mara Polyakova, director of the Independent Legal Expertise Council. The 2002 legal reforms were supposed to end the accepted custom of judges giving procurators additional time to improve their cases, but this continues. Additionally, the practice of secret trials is spreading, allowing procurators to fudge cases by introducing secret materials that in fact are not relevant.

Constitutional Court chairman Valerii Zorkin brought extensive publicity to another problem when he told Izvestia that research had demonstrated judges were vulnerable to corruption by businesses and hand decisions to the highest bidder. Zorkin asserted that the practice was widespread. The Supreme Court challenged the validity of Zorkin's assertions, but he responded that it did not make sense to deny the obvious. Getting at the truth is a difficult matter: no judges were convicted of taking bribes between 2001 and September 2004. Such figures suggest that either all judges are honest or they know how to protect themselves.

While the extent of corruption is unknowable, the public has a very negative view of the courts, according to an October Public Opinion Foundation poll reported in Vremya Novostei. A large majority of the population considers the courts to be ineffective, unjust, and completely corrupt. But some argue that such public perceptions are not grounded in reality. Ordinary citizens win 71 percent of their cases when they sue representatives of the authorities at various levels, according to Yuri Sidorenko, chairman of the Russian Federation Council of Judges, reported Izvestia. More people are using the courts and winning. Alexei Andreev, a resident of the town of Cheboksary, successfully sued the giant AvtoVAZ for selling him a defective car, according to RIA Novosti. Since February 2003, ordinary Russians can challenge all presidential decrees in the Supreme Court. With the annual number of cases jumping from 1 million to 6 million in recent years, courts are certainly much more in demand.

Over 2004, the Putin team stepped up executive branch pressure on the courts. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov proposed transferring to the president the right to appoint and fire the general director of the Supreme Court's Judicial Department, a body responsible for the administration of the courts. The Supreme Court chairman now appoints the director, with the advice and consent of the head of the Russian Judicial Council, who is a member of the Supreme Court and has little independence in practice.

Additionally, Mironov proposed reorganizing the Supreme Qualification Collegium, the only official body in the country that can hire and fire judges. The collegium appoints judges to the Supreme Court and Supreme Arbitrazh Court. It currently has 29 members, 18 elected by judges through secret ballot every four years, 10 appointed by the Federation Council, and 1 appointed by the president. Mironov suggested cutting the collegium's membership to 21 people. Ten would be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Federation Council, 10 nominated by the Speaker of the Federation Council and approved by the members, and 1 appointed by the president. Mironov's proposal allowed the president to fire his representatives on the collegium with the collegium's consent and gave the Federation Council the right to fire its public representatives. The bill violated the Lisbon Convention, which Russia signed in 1998, since the judiciary would not be guaranteed at least 50 percent of the seats in the collegium, reported the Moscow Times. Ultimately, the All-Russian Congress of Judges rejected Mironov's proposal in December, which forced Putin to back away from it. Additionally, the judges insisted that Putin raise the mandatory retirement age for all judges from 65 to 70, a change that should be adopted in 2005. In December 2001, Putin had replaced the life appointments for judges with mandatory retirement at age 65.

The executive branch can also exert pressure on the courts through chief judges. They are appointed for six years, and their reappointment depends in part on a review by the presidential administration. Many players are involved in this process and can block the appointment of a judge. The chief judges often decide which judge will hear sensitive cases and habitually assign these to reliable (or "politically mature") judges who will make the appropriate decision.

The extent of this pressure became apparent in the case of former Moscow City Court judge Olga Kudeshkina. According to the Moscow Times, Kudeshkina lost her job after refusing to obey orders from her chief judge, who served as a conduit from the executive branch. In the well-publicized case of Pavel Zaitsev, a police investigator who started looking into customs fraud by people with connections to the FSB, Kudeshkina was ordered to find Zaitsev guilty of abusing his office but refused to follow instructions. Kudeshkina was fired from the high-profile case and then removed from the court when she spoke about the matter publicly. At the end of 2004, the Moscow Times also reported that another Moscow judge, Alexander Melikov, was fired for, as he claimed, not delivering a sufficient number of convictions.

Beyond the courts, there were also clear problems with the police. From December 10 to December 14, law enforcement agents in the city of Blagoveshchensk, Bashkortostan, went on a rampage, detaining and beating approximately 1,000 young men in the city of 30,000. The local authorities actively blocked efforts by the victims to assign blame for the incident, but human rights groups continued to conduct their own investigations.

Corruption (Score: 5.75)

In 2004, Transparency International ranked Russia 90 out of 146 countries for its perceived level of corruption. All parties, from Putin down, acknowledge the problem, and the media have devoted numerous articles to it. Corruption pervades every aspect of Russian life, from small-business administration to the health care and education systems. Corruption was a considerable problem in the czarist and Soviet periods. During the Yeltsin era, crooked privatization deals created considerable ambiguity in the public mind about whether it makes sense now to protect property rights or to try to correct some of the abuses of the past. Much of the public feels the problem is so extensive that little can be done to counteract it, thus breeding widespread apathy. Official "anticorruption" campaigns are usually designed to serve the interests of one or another group seeking to use this issue to discredit political enemies.

Corruption had tragic consequences for Russia in 2004. In the August bombings that brought down two planes, killing 90 people, and the Beslan school attack, corruption made it possible for the terrorists to carry out their dark deeds. The bombers entered the aircraft just prior to takeoff by buying tickets from a scalper and paying a US$30 bribe to an airline official. Additionally, some of the terrorists told the Beslan hostages that they had paid bribes to bring their two trucks into the school compound. By the end of the year, five police officers were facing charges of negligence connected with the attack.

The Russian government has not enacted an effective anticorruption policy. Russia signed the UN Convention Against Corruption (2003) and the COE's Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (1999), but it has not ratified these documents or brought its national legislation into compliance with them, notes RIA Novosti. Putin's attacks on civil society and the media, combined with his efforts to concentrate more power in the executive branch, have only exacerbated the problem. The bureaucracy grows stronger as institutions capable of overseeing it grow weaker.

Putin's plan to appoint governors will certainly increase corruption. Under that system, a small number of officials in the presidential administration will decide in effect who rules each region. With essentially no public oversight, these individuals will be vulnerable to political pressure and bribes as different interests seek to gain control over property and resources managed by Russia's governors.

Supreme Court data show that some 15,000 people are convicted of corruption-related crimes every year, but these figures by no means reflect the true state of affairs. Official anticorruption campaigns target low-level officials rather than those at the top. One of the few high-level officials tried was State Statistics Committee head Yuri Yurkov, who received 4.5 years for bribery and embezzlement in February, reported the Moscow Times. The higher the official, the harder it is to investigate corruption, since large bribes go through intermediaries, according to Colonel Sergei Manakhov, acting chief of the Ministry of the Interior's Investigative Committee. Corruption is deeply embedded in the system, since it is nearly impossible to start a business without the support of an official, according to Moscow News.

Police have little incentive to go after major offenders. Since police performance is judged by the number of cases solved, most officers prefer to prosecute minor offenders. Officers purposely withhold information on major cases to lower the crime rate in their precincts and improve the appearance of their own performance. Lower-level officers observe the corrupt actions of their superiors and inevitably mimic their practices.

The campaign against corruption is also undermined by the government's use of corruption charges as a political tactic against its opponents. In particular, the federal government has used accusations of corruption against regional officials, arresting many of them over the course of the year for taking bribes. Most see this selective campaign as part of the Kremlin's broader crackdown on regional authorities. Additionally, the State Duma Commission on Counteracting Corruption lost the ability to carry out its own investigations and is therefore no longer as powerful as it once was. Now its main purpose is to review draft laws for corruption loopholes, according to Boris Demidov, an expert at Moscow's Legal Resource Center.

In April, Putin raised the salaries of high-ranking officials as part of his campaign against corruption, with federal ministers receiving US$3,000 per month, approximately five times their previous salary. However, a study by Indem released in May showed that this approach had little impact, reported Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Since the contracts that officials deal with are still much larger than their salaries, the raises have not provided enough of an incentive to stop their taking bribes. Such measures as raising salaries would be effective only as part of a comprehensive strategy to root out graft at all levels of the bureaucracy.

Progress is unlikely in the area of administrative reform since Putin reassigned the head of this project, Dmitrii Kozak, to deal with the North Caucasus. The recently adopted Law on State Service once again requires bureaucrats to be more transparent about their personal finances. Russia has been trying to implement this type of administrative reform since the mid-1990s, but with little success. A better plan would be to cut staff and raise the salaries of remaining employees in an effort to increase efficiency. Currently, many officials are leaving federal employ simply to start working for regional governments, so the overall size of the bureaucracy is not shrinking.


Robert W. Orttung is an associate research professor at the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center of American University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Security Studies of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

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