Democracy and rights
Democratic deficiencies are great in Russia, despite the fact that democracy and the rule of law are guaranteed in the constitution. Freedom of the press and opinion is limited. In prisons there are political prisoners and the work of independent media and opposition politicians is hindered in various ways. On the Internet, the climate of debate is freer than in other contexts, but the authorities have tried to restrict freedom of expression even there.
Formally, political parties can be formed freely, but prominent opposition politicians are systematically denied their registration applications. One of the main opposition politicians, Aleksey Navalnyj, has been trying to get his party registered with the Ministry of Justice since 2012 without success. During that time, the party changed its name three times and held nine statutory meetings. Former MP Dmitry Gudkov has also struggled since 2018 to get permission to change the name of the party he is leading and get himself approved as the party’s chairman.
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Elections in Russia are mostly peaceful, but electoral fraud occurs, especially in cases where the position of the regime’s candidates is weak. There are no formal barriers for women and minorities to participate in political life, but women are severely underrepresented in Parliament (just under 16 percent of members in the duma are women).
The right to demonstrate is limited. All demonstrations must be approved in advance by the authorities, except so-called one-man demonstrations. It is difficult to get permission if the demonstration is perceived as a protest against the current political system. Participants in unauthorized demonstrations run the risk of being subjected to police violence, receiving fines and being placed in so-called “administrative arrest” in a few days. For deterrent purposes, individual participants in prosecutions for violence against police are prosecuted and sentenced to prison or given a conditional sentence. Participants in permitted demonstrations have also been penalized.
Prominent opposition politicians are being persecuted and harassed, including through politically motivated judgments (see below). In 2015, former Prime Minister and Liberal Boris Nemtsov was murdered, and the authorities have been unable to find the person who ordered the murder.
Civil society operates under pressure from the authorities. Non-profit organizations that are considered to carry on political activities (a concept that is interpreted quite broadly) as well as foreign media can be designated as “foreign agents” for direct or indirect funding from abroad (74 organizations in April 2019). Being classified as a “foreign agent” leads to a deteriorating domestic reputation and these organizations are subject to a comprehensive regulatory framework when it comes to reporting their financing. If they fail, fines threaten. Many organizations have chosen not to receive foreign funding in order not to be classified as a “foreign agent”. This reduces their resources and opportunities to conduct their business.
Foreign and international NGOs can also be labeled as “undesirable” if they are considered to threaten Russia’s national security. An “undesirable” organization is prohibited from operating in Russia (15 organizations had this status in April 2019). If an organization continues to operate despite the ban, it can result in a fine and, on repeated offenses, imprisonment for members of the organization.
Abbreviated as RUS by Abbreviationfinder, Russia has a viable non-profit sector. There are many organizations that work actively to improve conditions for, for example, orphans, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, but the right to engage in interest groups is sometimes restricted, especially in organizations dealing with politically sensitive issues. In connection with the authorities marking the British-based organization Open Russia (Otkrytaja Rossija) as “undesirable”, a persecution campaign was also launched against activists in a Russian organization of the same name. Activists in the Russian organization have been fined and charges have been brought which could lead to imprisonment. Employees of Aleksej Navalnyj’s foundation against corruption are also regularly harassed and accused of violating various regulations.
Russia ranked 137th among 180 countries and reached a clear bottom spot among European countries in Transparency International’s latest index of corruption in the world (see ranking list here). Although the state explicitly announced a fight against corruption, the efforts yield little results, as the officials responsible for combating corruption are often themselves involved in corruption. A number of high-ranking officials, including ministers, have been charged with corruption in recent years, but it is seen more as the result of internal power struggles than as sincere attempts to combat the phenomenon.
The widespread corruption causes dissatisfaction among the population. In early 2017, Alexej Navalnyj revealed a large-scale corruption rage surrounding Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his inner circle in a film entitled “He is no fool” (On vam ne Dimon; available on Youtube with English text). The movie has generated 30 million views and the reveal led to major demonstrations against corruption around the country. In March 2017, tens of thousands of people in at least 97 cities protested against high-level corruption and in particular against the Prime Minister.
Freedom of expression and media
The Russian constitution guarantees, among other things, freedom of expression and press and includes a censorship ban. In practice, however, freedom of expression is now severely restricted. Both state censorship and self-censorship among journalists occur. In Reporters Without Borders latest press freedom index, Russia is ranked 149 out of 180 countries surveyed (see ranking list here).
The majority of the media is loyal to the state and conveys news in a way that benefits the Kremlin. There are a few independent media that critically review public operations. Some examples are the TV channel Dozjd (www.tvrain.ru), the radio station Echo Moskvy, the quality newspapers Novaja Gazeta, Vedomosti, Nezavisimaja Gazeta and The New Times as well as a number of regional media. Latvia’s capital Riga is the site of an independent news site – meduza.io – that publishes Russian and English material.
Following Putin’s re-entry into the 2012 presidential post, the authorities’ efforts to limit freedom of expression were intensified by a number of new laws. The purpose was said to be to fight extremism, slander of individuals and abuse of children and to protect religious sentiments and to defend traditional values, but the laws are so vaguely worded that they can also be used to silence opposition voices.
The activities of independent media are also hampered by the fact that they can be punished for the least violation of the detailed and contradictory regulations. The New Times magazine was fined 22 million rubles (just over SEK 3 million) for reporting information on its financing in a way that the authorities considered was incorrect. The newspaper managed to collect the necessary amount with the help of crowfunding and failed to go bankrupt. Both traditional and new media are often sued for slander by politicians and businessmen who have been singled out in reporting. The lawsuits usually lead to the media being forced to pay violation compensation.
According to the 2019 survey, 81% of Russians use the internet every day and the internet is today the most open platform for exchanging views. Recently, however, attempts have been made to limit freedom of expression on the Internet. In March 2019, a law was passed that would stop the media from publishing “fake news” and disrespectful statements about the state on the internet. According to the critics, this law could be used to prevent the dissemination of critical views in general. (Read more about the new law in the Foreign Magazine article “Russian attempts to restrict freedom of expression on the Internet”) The law was applied for the first time two days after it came into force. An even more repressive law comes into force in November 2019, the so-called “sovereign” or “sustainable” Internet law, which means that Russian operators cannot connect to root servers abroad (the large global servers that handle domain names). The authorities say that the new law is intended to guarantee citizens of Russia a stable and secure access to the global network, while human rights organizations believe that the main purpose of the law is to give the authorities the opportunity to block access to the Internet for the public, for example in large demonstrations when the Internet connection is crucial for effective dissemination of information.
Threats and violence against individual journalists and independent media companies exist. Journalists who monitor political manifestations run the risk of being arrested along with ordinary protesters with fines or administrative detention as a possible consequence. It also happens that journalists dealing with sensitive subjects are murdered openly or perish under strange circumstances. The most well-known case is the murder of the investigative journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya. She was shot in the elevator on her way up to her apartment in 2006. In 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered who examined the Russian organization Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic (Vagner allegedly recruits mercenaries and has links with one of Putin’s closest men Evgenij Prigozhin).
Russia has established several state media (Sputnik, Russia Today) that broadcast news abroad in several languages. These media are trying to disseminate Russia’s official view of events in the world. The Russian regime has also been repeatedly accused of trying to influence public opinion and election results in several Western countries. In order to carry out impact operations, the Kremlin uses the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a so-called magic factory. The IRA disseminates information with messages that favor the Russian leadership in social media. The US Mueller report found in 2019 that the Russian government was trying to intervene in the 2016 US election campaign through hacker attacks and impact operations. 28 Russian citizens have been prosecuted for crimes stated in the report.
Judicial system and legal security
The independence of courts is guaranteed in the Russian constitution, but it happens that courts make politically motivated decisions in sensitive cases. Opposition leader Aleksej Navalnyj, for example, has been convicted of several cases of fraud. Navalnyj claims that the judges aim to stop him from running for election. He has in many cases been endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights (see Calendar, 9 April 2019).
Legal security is low in politically motivated cases. The defense is often not allowed to present its arguments, but the court ruled on the evidence presented by the prosecutor. Major legal security deficiencies also occur during the preliminary investigation. Legal certainty is higher in the non-political legal processes, but it appears that economically stronger parties achieve success through corruption.
According to a report presented in the summer of 2019, there were at least 236 political prisoners in Russia. The report had been made by a US law firm, Perseus Strategies, which deals with human rights cases. The study was conducted with the support of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, which conducted a similar study in 2015. At that time, the number of political prisoners was 46.
One of the most notable political prisoners of recent times is Oyub Titijev, director of the Memorial Office in Chechnya. Titijev was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to four years in prison for alleged drug possession. However, he was released prematurely in the summer of 2019, a week after another notable case when an excavating reporter was arrested on an independent news site, also accused of drug possession, but which was surprisingly acquitted and released almost immediately after extensive protests among the media and the general public (see Calendar; 21 June 2019).
For example, persecution groups are anarchists, members of the Open Russia organization (Otkrytaja Rossija) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (see Religion). Other controversial cases are the so-called Novoe Velitjije and Set stores young people arrested for terrorism (see Calendar, October 28, 2018 and October 17, 2017, respectively). The litigation against the famous director Kirill Serebrennikov and his co-workers has also attracted attention. Serebrennikov was arrested in 2017 and charged with fraud with cultural money. The prosecution was regarded by many as politically motivated when Serebrennikov, in his work, came into conflict with both the Orthodox Church and with certain cultural institutions. However, in early fall of 2019, a Moscow court rejected the charge and sent it back to prosecutors.
The death penalty has in principle been abolished by the Constitutional Court’s judgment. In 2018, the authority corresponding to the Swedish Prison Service reported that the number of detainees was record low. This is the result of a long-term trend. One contributing reason is that the detention time is now multiplied by 1.5 before being deducted from prison time.
According to some researchers, the biggest problem with the Russian judicial system is a built-in system error. In the book “The new autocracy”, Ella Paneyach and Dina Rosenberg write that internal over-bureaucratic regulations and inconsistent promotion rules lead to employees choosing to proceed with simple cases, prosecuting the most unprotected individuals and ignoring the more serious and more difficult crimes. Since it is impossible to follow all the rules consistently, employees in the judicial system are not often forced to violate the law when performing their duties, the two researchers write.
Russia has a constitutional court whose task is to ensure that the constitutional rules are not violated. The Constitutional Court is, in principle, loyal to the regime, but in some cases tries to mitigate the effects of laws that restrict the protection of rights by clearly defining the scope of the laws (and thus reducing the risk of arbitrary application). The Constitutional Court also has the power to annul laws and regulations. This power is used quite often, especially when it comes to regulations from less influential authorities.
Since the Soviet era, the legal consciousness of the population has increased: more claim their rights in court and many who lose go to the European Court of Justice. Russia is the country that accounts for the most European Court filings.
The Constitutional Court made a decision in 2015 that means that Russian courts may deviate from the European Court of Justice’s decision in cases where they go against the Russian “constitutional identity”. Until 2019, the Constitutional Court has refused to execute the European Court’s decision twice. In the vast majority of cases involving individuals, the judgments of the European Court of Justice are enforced, that is, the state pays compensation and reviews the judgments. On the other hand, it is slow to implement the recommendations of the European Court of Justice in dealing with system errors, such as improving conditions in detention and prisons, counteracting arbitrary legislation and issuing unfair judgments.
Between 1998 and 2018, Russia paid out about EUR 2 billion in accordance with the European Court of Justice’s rulings. The total amount paid by the state as compensation for violations of citizens’ rights was 70 times greater in 2010 than in 2001.
Putin’s return to power in 2012 had a negative impact on developments in the justice system. The number of politically motivated sentences has increased and the number of prison sentences per year has ceased to decrease. Individuals now win less often in tax or other administrative goals that can bring money to the state. This trend is part of the phenomenon described as “people become the new oil”, that is, taxes, fees and fines are replacing oil as the state’s main source of income.
A recent reform of extremist legislation also fits into this trend. Between 2013 and 2018, 1,000-2,000 people were sentenced to fines or imprisonment for “extremist” statements and distributions of “extremist” material on the Internet. However, with a law change at the end of 2018, one-off offenses of this kind were downgraded from criminal to “administrative” wrongdoing ”which led to a decrease in the number of imprisonment while fines became more common.
Conditions in prisons are poor and have not improved significantly since the Soviet era. Torture in prisons is a known problem and the issue was particularly highlighted in 2018 after videos of documented torture were circulated on the Internet. The independent news site Meduza then compiled a list of over 100 reported torture cases in 2018.
In April 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office reported that violations in prisons occur in every other region of Russia and that preliminary investigations are ongoing in over 50 cases of suspected abuse of power. Despite this, new information on torture is regularly appearing in the media.