Freedom in the World 2003


The violence and brutality in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya moved from the periphery to the capital when several dozen Chechen militants took more than 750 people hostage in a Moscow theater in October 2002. The crisis intensified President Vladimir Putin's efforts to portray the war in Chechnya as an antiterrorist operation, while hopes of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict remained elusive at year's end. Throughout 2002, the Kremlin moved to consolidate its authority further by removing Communist deputies from nearly all of their leadership posts in the lower house of parliament (Duma) and putting pressure on independent media outlets that scrutinized or criticized the government. While Putin continued to press ahead with a number of economic and legal reform measures, some other initiatives, such as energy sector restructuring, were delayed during the year. In the foreign policy arena, the creation of a new joint council with NATO and official recognition by the EU and the United States that Russia now has a market economy reinforced Moscow's steadily growing ties with the West. However, U.S.-Russian relations showed signs of strain over the perceived failure of Washington to reciprocate Moscow's support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, and to a growing Western military presence in several former Soviet republics.

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, who was openly supported by the country's most influential media and business elites, easily defeated Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. The signing of a peace agreement in August with authorities in the republic of Chechnya put an end to a nearly two-year war with the breakaway territory, in which Russia suffered a humiliating defeat and Chechnya's formal economy and infrastructure were largely destroyed. A final decision on the region's status was officially deferred until 2001.

The August 1998 collapse of the ruble and Russia's financial markets ushered in a new government that signaled a return to greater spending and state control. One year later, Federal Security Service head Vladimir Putin was named the country's new prime minister. Yeltsin, whose term was set to expire in 2000 and who was ineligible to run for a third term, indicated that Putin was his preferred successor in the presidential elections scheduled for June 2000.

The previous conflict with Chechnya was reignited in 1999, after an invasion by Chechen rebels into the neighboring republic of Dagestan in early August and a subsequent string of deadly apartment house bombings in August and September in several Russian cities that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen militants. The Russian government responded by initiating an invasion of the breakaway republic that drove tens of thousands of civilians from their homes and led to accusations of human rights violations committed by both the Russian military and Chechen fighters. However, both the military campaign and Putin enjoyed broad popular support in Russia that was fueled by the media's largely pro-government reporting.

In the December 19, 1999, election for the Duma, the Communist Party captured the most seats, 114. The Unity bloc, a diverse grouping of political figures created by the Kremlin just three months earlier and endorsed by Putin, appealed to voters on the basis of its image as a champion of the restoration of order and tough leadership and gained 73 seats. While the Communists formed the single largest bloc, the results nonetheless were regarded as a victory for pro-government forces. Under a Kremlin-inspired power-sharing deal agreed to the following month, the Communists were given control of one-third of the Duma's committees, as well as the right to choose the legislature's speaker and deputy speaker. The Communists in turn largely supported the pro-government parties backing Putin.

In a surprise end-of-the-year move, Yeltsin announced his resignation on December 31, turning over the reins of power to Putin. Many observers maintained that his sudden departure was linked to the signing of a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for Yeltsin, who recently had been at the center of several corruption scandals, as well as to his worsening health problems. His resignation served to move up the presidential poll by three months, from June to March 2000. In a widely anticipated victory, Putin secured 53 percent of the vote over his closest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who received 29 percent. Two months after the election, parliament overwhelmingly approved Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who had served as Russia's chief foreign debt negotiator, as the new prime minister.

Shortly after taking office in March, Putin moved to consolidate power by limiting the influence of major business leaders over state policy and increasing the central government's authority over the country's far-flung regions. He challenged the long-standing political clout of some of the country's so-called oligarchs, members of the wealthy and powerful business elite--including media owners Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky--through a series of investigations and raids by tax officials that allegedly were part of a new anticorruption campaign. In an effort to rein in the country's often independent-minded 89 governors, Putin pushed through legislation removing them from their positions in the upper house of parliament (Federation Council) and allowing the president to suspend them for breaking federal laws. He also created seven new "super regions" headed by Kremlin appointees, most of whom had backgrounds in the military or security services.

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Moscow's support of the U.S.-led antiterrorist campaign was heralded by many as the start of a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. Significantly improved levels of cooperation led to speculation about what concessions the West might be expected to make in return for continued Russian assistance. By mid-November, the United States appeared to have reduced its criticism of the war in Chechnya. It had also moved to accelerate Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, pledged along with Russia to make deep cuts in nuclear weapons over the next decade, and endorsed a greater voice for Russia in NATO affairs. However, a chill in relations developed late in the year when the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and Moscow's hopes for a greater voice in NATO went unrealized.

On the domestic front, Putin relied on a largely compliant parliament to hasten the adoption of a series of wide-ranging and often controversial legal and economic reforms with the stated aims of reducing corruption, increasing transparency and efficiency, and boosting foreign investment. Among the various changes were new laws governing labor, taxation, banking, land ownership, pensions, and the judicial system. Some observers cautioned that the reforms were not extensive enough or would face serious obstacles in implementation from the country's entrenched bureaucracy.

In 2002, Putin and the legislature continued to press forward with such reforms as the passage of legislation allowing for the sale of agricultural land and the approval of a bankruptcy act to improve legal protection for debtors. However, other changes--including banking reforms and restructuring of the energy sector to cut costs and attract foreign investment--slowed or were postponed. With parliamentary elections looming in 2003 and presidential elections in 2004, some analysts argued that delays were caused in part by concerns over negative political repercussions associated with the adoption of often unpopular reform measures.

The pattern of increasing concentration of power in the hands of the president and his allies was reinforced when pro-Kremlin legislators in April voted to strip the Communist Party of nearly all of its Duma leadership posts. The decision marked an end to the two-year power-sharing agreement between the Communists and pro-government factions in parliament. According to some observers, the move to reduce the Communists' influence could prove to be a long-term tactical error that will transform them from quasi-allies to a vocal opposition force.

Moscow achieved foreign policy successes with the West by the signing a nuclear arms treaty with Washington and the creation in May of a new joint council with NATO. At the same time, relations with the United States were strained over issues including Russia's extension of economic ties with U.S. adversaries Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and complaints by some Russian officials that Washington had failed to reciprocate assistance offered by Putin after September 11, 2001. In the economic sphere, the U.S. Commerce Department announced in June that it would recognize Russia as a market economy, easing Russian access to U.S. markets (the EU made a similar decision a week earlier). However, by year's end, the U.S. Congress had failed to lift the Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions intended to punish countries for their restrictive emigration policies.

Russia sought to reassert its influence in the former Soviet sphere to counter a growing Western presence in the region. In the southern Caucasus nation of Georgia, where the U.S. military was training local troops, Russian planes reportedly conducted bombing raids to dislodge Chechen rebels alleged to be sheltering there. In December, Moscow stationed troops in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, where the United States had sent military personnel after September 11, 2001. The small Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, became the subject of talks with the EU in 2002. Following a series of often tense negotiations, Lithuania and Russia agreed to allow Russian citizens to use alternative travel documents, rather than visas, when visiting Kaliningrad once Poland and Lithuania join the EU in 2004.

Chechnya captured center stage in late October after a group of some 50 Chechen armed rebels took 750 hostages in a Moscow theater and demanded that Russian troops withdraw from the breakaway territory. The standoff ended after three days, when Russian special forces stormed the building in a pre-dawn rescue operation; most of the militants died during the siege. More than 120 hostages were also killed, almost all by a sedative gas used to incapacitate the rebels, which prompted widespread criticism of the authorities' handling of the crisis. Putin responded by reasserting his claim that the war in Chechnya was part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign and vowing to take "appropriate measures" against terrorists in the future.

By year's end, a peaceful settlement to the Chechen conflict remained elusive, as rebel forces engaged in sniper attacks, car bombings, and suicide missions against Russian troops and pro-Moscow Chechens. Human rights groups continued to report cases of torture, extrajudicial executions, and politically motivated disappearance of civilians by Russian troops, which were often committed during so-called mopping-up operations to find separatist fighters.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

While Russians can change their government democratically, the 2000 presidential vote was marred by irregularities. A highly critical report by The Moscow Times following a comprehensive six-month investigation concluded that incumbent President Vladimir Putin would have faced a second-round runoff if not for widespread fraud; the report did concede 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 (Duma) and an upper chamber (Federation Council). The 1999 Duma election was regarded as generally free and fair despite some irregularities, including biased media coverage.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the government and major enterprises with links to the government continued to put pressure on media outlets critical of the Kremlin. According to some analysts, the upcoming 2003 parliamentary and 2004 presidential elections provided the authorities with greater impetus to control the operation and content of print and broadcast media. The financial dependence of many television and radio stations and newspapers on the state or large companies further threatened editorial independence. In 2002, a number of journalists and media groups faced lawsuits based largely on their unfavorable coverage of government policies. In February, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta lost two separate libel cases. Press-freedom groups maintained that authorities targeted the paper because of its reports on high-profile corruption cases and its criticism of the war in Chechnya.

In January, the country's last private nationwide television channel, TV-6, was closed after a Moscow arbitration court ordered its liquidation. The ruling followed a bankruptcy suit filed by the petroleum giant and TV-6 minority shareholder, LUKoil, against the station for alleged poor financial performance. Exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky, who was one of Putin's most outspoken critics, had been a majority owner of the station. After the state-controlled natural gas company, Gazprom, had effectively taken control of the independent television station NTV in April 2001, many of the station's journalists had joined the staff of TV-6. Press freedom groups criticized the ruling against TV-6 as a move by the state to support loyal businesses in taking over and silencing independent media outlets challenging Russian governmental policy. In March, the federal broadcasting commission awarded the TV6 broadcasting frequency to a team of former TV-6 journalists, including the station's general director, Yevgeny Kiselyov. The journalists had applied as part of a new media holding company, Media-Socium, which included a group of prominent businessmen and was led by former prime minister and current head of the Russian chamber of commerce, Yevgeny Primakov, and the chief of the Russian Union of Indus-trialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky. The station returned to the airwaves in June under the new name of TVS. Analysts raised doubts that TVS would be fully independent of the government, as both Primakov and Volsky are closely associated with the Kremlin.

The government used draft changes to the media law to censor and shape coverage of the October Moscow theater hostage crisis. 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 some of the statements made by the Chechen rebel leader inside the theater. The amendments, which would limit media coverage of terrorist activities and statements and antiterrorist operations, were hastily passed by both houses of parliament during the next two weeks. On November 25, Putin vetoed the amendments, which critics had argued represented government censorship and would further limit already severely restricted reporting of the war in Chechnya.

Throughout Russia's regions, journalists are coming under increasing attack because of their reporting or affiliation with certain media outlets that scrutinize the authorities; many of the cases are never solved. In the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, Natalya Skryl, a business reporter with the newspaper Nashe Vremya, was murdered on March 8. Prior to her death, Skryl had been investigating the activities of a number of large companies in the region. Valery Ivanov, the editor of the Togliatti newspaper Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye, which was known for publishing reports on organized crime and corruption, was shot dead outside his home in April. A series of violent attacks occurred against journalists in the city of Penza, including the beating of investigative journalist Alexander Kizlov shortly after he published articles in several papers criticizing the city's mayor. 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 with proven loyalty to the government.

In June 2002, the military branch of the Supreme Court upheld a four-year prison sentence against navy journalist Grigory Pasko, who had been found guilty the previous year on charges of espionage. According to press freedom organizations, the conviction was a politically motivated effort to prevent him from continuing to report on the environmental dangers posed by the Russian navy's nuclear waste dumping practices. The Federal Security Service pursued other cases during the year that it termed examples of espionage, including those against the security and arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin and the physicist Valentin Danilov. Human rights groups contend that cases such as these involve information that has been declassified or is in the public domain.

Freedom of religion is respected unevenly in this primarily Russian Orthodox country. A controversial 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 often harass nontraditional groups, with the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons among the frequent targets. Foreign religious workers continued to be denied visas to return to Russia, while several Roman Catholic priests were deported, barred entry, or refused visa renewals.

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. Critics have charged that the law reduces pluralism by limiting opportunities for smaller, regionally-based parties. In June 2002, parliament adopted legislation that gives the authorities the right to suspend parties or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose members are accused of extremism. Critics argued that the law defines extremism too broadly and gives the government too much power to suppress opposition political activities that may not be genuinely extremist in nature. The NGO sector is composed of thousands of diverse groups, with many of them reliant on funding from foreign sources.

While trade union rights are legally protected, they are limited in practice. Anti-union discrimination and reprisals for strikes are fairly common, and employers often ignore collective bargaining rights. Most unions enjoy limited popular support and are struggling to address evolving economic and labor market conditions. Parliament adopted a new labor code in December 2001 that entered into force in February 2002. The law provides for a 40-hour workweek and seeks to address the problem of wage arrears. However, according to a report issued by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, some unions criticized aspects of the new code, including the placement of further limits on the right to strike.

With the long-awaited adoption of a judicial reform package in late 2001 that went into effect in 2002, the government made progress in implementing provisions to ensure due process and fair and timely trials. The changes to Russia's criminal procedure code include establishing jury trials in criminal cases throughout the country by January 2003 (jury trials had been held in only 9 of the nation's 89 regions); transferring the right to issue arrest and search warrants from the prosecutors to the courts; and eliminating trials conducted in absentia. Some critics maintain that the reform measures fail to address other 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. In December, the Duma voted to postpone introducing jury trials in certain parts of the country by up to four years because of financial and technical difficulties. In addition, the judiciary continues to be subject to political interference, corruption, inadequate funding, and a lack of qualified personnel.

While Russia's prison system suffers from overcrowding, inadequate medical attention, and poor sanitary conditions, authorities took steps during the year to reduce the prison population, including introducing alternative sentences to incarceration. Implementation in 2002 of a new criminal procedure code that generally limits pretrial detention to six months has reduced overcrowding in pretrial detention centers (SIZOs). However, conditions for detainees in SIZOs remain extremely harsh, including inadequate food, ventilation, and health care. 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.

The government places some restrictions on freedom of movement and residence. All adults are legally required to carry internal passports while traveling, documents which are also necessary to obtain many governmental 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.

Corruption throughout the government and business world is pervasive, with members of the old Soviet elite having used insider information to obtain control of key industrial and business enterprises. Consequently, 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 report released in May 2002 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. Students are frequently required to pay bribes in order to gain entrance to universities, the report stated. Russia received the lowest possible ranking on the 2002 Transparency International Bribe Payers' Index of 21 leading exporting nations. Legislation to combat money laundering, which entered into force in February 2002, was further toughened in September. As a consequence, the Financial Action Task Force of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates international measures against money laundering, removed Russia from its list of noncooperating countries. However, it was unclear when the law's various regulations would be fully operational. Putin's anticorruption efforts have been selectively applied and have often targeted critics or potential political adversaries.

A historic land code that established the legal framework for buying and selling nonagricultural land was adopted in October 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. The absence of such legislation has been blamed for inhibiting the growth of Russia's economy.

Ethnic minorities, particularly those who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia, are subject to governmental and societal discrimination and harassment. Numerous racially motivated attacks by skinheads and other extremist groups occurred throughout the year. Domestic violence remains a serious problem, while police are often reluctant to intervene in what they regard as internal family matters. Economic hardships throughout the country have led to a rise in the trafficking of women abroad for prostitution. There is credible evidence that women face considerable discrimination in the workplace, including being paid less than their male counterparts for performing the same work.

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)